BONAVENTURE: A Visit to Savannah's Famous Cemetery
Updated: Mar 9, 2022
The term "hauntingly, beautiful" is what I would use to describe Bonaventure Cemetery. One of the most well-known and visited cemeteries in not only Savannah, Georgia, or the South, but all of the United States.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A PLACE FOR THE DEAD & LIVING
Driving through the narrow stone and iron gate, you're instantly drawn into a serene scene. Canopied by large live oaks, dripping with Spanish moss, lining the drives through the cemetery. Some of the trees are aged well over two hundred years. Ornate grave markers, tombs, monuments, and mausoleums spread out over the 160 acres.
(Sound on video was not added, that's the original audio)
Escape the crowds of River Street and head 20-minutes outside of Savannah’s historic district to the peaceful Bonaventure Cemetery. Overlooking the tranquil waters of the Wilmington River on a scenic bluff, at Bonaventure, the who's-who of Savannah and Georgia history are buried here.
The cemetery is comprised of several distinct sections. The historic section with more notable graves is towards the back. Running between Noble Jones Dr to the graves near the bank of the river. Other prominent sections include the American Legion adjoining the historic section and the Jewish section is towards the front on the south side. You also notice a Jewish chapel.
Bonaventure is operated by Savannah’s Department of Cemeteries. The Bonaventure Historical Society manages the visitor center and provides tours monthly. They also oversee the cemetery's social media accounts (Facebook and Instagram).
FROM PLANTATION TO CEMETERY
Now the final resting spot for hundreds of souls, originally this land was part of the 600 acre Bonaventure Plantation. Built when Georgia was still a colony, Colonel John Mullryneby and his family lived at Bonaventure until it was repossessed from his son-in-law, Josiah Tattnall by the Georgia colony. Why you might ask? During the Revolutionary War, both Mullryneby and Tattnall were loyalists. Pledging their allegiance to England and King George. Which in turn led to their banishment from the colony.
In 1782, all loyalist property in Georgia was auctioned off, including Bonaventure Plantation. Eventually, the Tattnalls would possess the plantation again. Until March 10, 1846, when Commodore Josiah Tattnall III sold the plantation and its family cemetery to Peter Wiltberger. The Wiltberger family established Evergreen Cemetery here in 1868. They sold the land to the City of Savannah in 1907. Making the cemetery public and changing the name to Bonaventure Cemetery.
Did You Know? Bonaventure derives from the Italian “buona fortuna” meaning Good Fortune.
To learn more about the history of Bonaventure, watch this video presented by the Bonaventure Historical Society.
A PLACE FOR THE DEAD & LIVING
From the mid to late 1800s, the Victorians began the rural cemetery movement. Opting to bury their loved ones in picturesque landscapes with numerous trees, pathways, and elaborate grave markers. Bonaventure is a premier example of this movement.
Victorian cemeteries, sometimes known as garden cemeteries, have a park-like quality to them. Sophisticated statues and monuments, with the same caliber of sculpture gardens. In designing these cemeteries nature was an important factor. While many of the live oaks dated back to before the 1800s, the grounds are also rich with vibrant azaleas bushes, camellias, and lush foliage.
The Victorians were also inspired by Egyptian aesthetics. This can be seen in the obelisks monuments. Other popular elements you'll see are urns and columns. Celtic crosses are also common in all Victorian burial grounds. It was customary during both the Victorian and the Edwardian periods, for families to enjoy afternoon picnics at the graves of those they lost.
What's the difference between a graveyard and cemetery? A graveyard is attached to or adjacent to a church. They tend to be smaller and more simple.
MONUMENTS & TOMBS I ADMIRE
1. MARIE M. BARCLAY TALIAFERRO (1858 - 1893)
Marie is buried in the Taliaferro family plot, along with three of her children - Katherine, Benjamin & Marie.
2. THE BALDWIN ANGEL, GRAVES OF GEORGE (1856-1927) & LUCY BALDWIN (1857-1923)
3. IVES MONUMENT, GRAVES OF ANSON (1858–1931) & CATHERINE IVES (1863 - 1915)
Also buried here is their infant daughter. As well as their son, also named Anson - and his wife, also named Catherine.
4. ALEXANDER ROBERT LAWTON (1818 - 1896)
Lawton was a Civil War Confederate Brigadier General. He graduated from West Point and Havard Law School. He also served in Georgia's state legislature. Lawton is buried in the Lawton Family plot, surrounded by some of his children - like his eldest daughter Corrine whose monument is next on the list.
5. CORRINE ELLIOTT LAWTON (1846 - 1877)
Buried right next to her father Alexander. She was initially buried at Laurel Grove Cemetery but was moved to Bonaventure in 1898. Her sculpture was created by an Italian sculptor. Researching the inscription at the lower right, it was Benedetto Civiletti of Palmero, Italy. His sculptures were known for their life-like features.
This is personally my "favorite" memorial in the cemetery. The statue is haunting and sorrowful, plus with the epitaph and her young age, it all seems s0 tragic. It's left a mark on me.
6. THEUS TOMB, GRAVES OF THOMAS (1840-1903) & ELIZA WILHELMINA THEUS (1845 - 1895)
7. GRACIE WATSON (1882-1889)
Daughter of W.J. And Frances Watson, Gracie passed away at age six of pneumonia. Her father commissioned Savannah sculptor John Walz to create a statue of the girl. Walz carved the memorial using a photograph of the girl as his inspiration.
Gracie's grave is among one of the most visited in Bonaventure. Gifts and offerings are often left outside the gate.
John Walz, a Savannah sculptor, is credited with creating roughly 80 statues and memorials in Bonaventure. Walz is also buried at Bonaventure. Originally, his grave had no marker but in 2015 the Bonaventure Historical Society installed one.
JOHNNY MERCER (1909-1976)
Buried in the Mercer Family plot. One of Savannah's favorite sons, Johnny Mercer was an accomplished songwriter, producer, and co-founder of Capitol Records. He won four Academy Awards on eighteen nominations for Best Original Song. Mercer's most famous piece might be Mood River (one of his Oscar winners) from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Personally, I'm a fan of Skylark and Come Rain or Come Shine.
Note, family members are still currently being buried in the plot - the most recent was in 2013.
CONRAD AIKEN (1889-1973)
Buried in a plot with his wife, as well as his father and mother. His epitaph says "COSMOS MARINER DESTINATION UNKNOWN." Aiken was a poet, playwright, and novelist. From 1950 to 1952 he served as the Library of Congress' Poet Laureate. Aiken was the first Georgia-born author to win a Pulitzer Prize
If you see his parent's headstone, their death dates are some. Tragically, Aiken's father killed his mother and then committed suicide. At the time, Conrad was eleven and he was the one who discovered their bodies. Now, they are all forever together.
NOBLE JONES (1702 - 1775)
The original owner of Wormsloe Plantation, now Wormsloe State Historic site. Jones was a carpenter who arrived in Georgia in 1733 with colony founder James Oglethorpe and the first group of settlers from England. Jones served Georgia as a doctor, constable, Indian agent, and Royal Councilor. He was also a surveyor, laying out the towns of Augusta and New Ebenezer.
This is Jones' third grave. Originally buried at Wormsloe in 1775 with his wife Sarah. At some point, they were later moved into Savannah at Colonial Park. With rumors Colonial Park was going to close, he was moved a third (final) time to Bonaventure.
GEORGE JONES (1766-1838)
Grandson of Noble Jones, George was a Congressman representing Georgia in the Senate. He also served in both Georgia's state House of Representatives and Senate. In 1812, Noble was Mayor of Savannah.
EDWARD TELFAIR (1735-1807) & DAUGHTER MARY TELFAIR (1791 -1875)
Her father Edward was from Scotland and came to the colonies in the 1730s. When the Revolutionary War broke out he fought against England as a patriot. Telfair served in the Continental Congress from 1778 through 1785. He also served as Governor of Georgia Telfair in 1786 for a one-year term, and again from 1789 through 1793.
Edward and his wife Sarah had six children, their last living child Mary bequeathed her family's Regency-style home, located on Savannah’s St. James Square (now Telfair Square), along with its contents - books, furniture, and works of art - to the Georgia Historical Society. The society opened the house, to the public in 1886, making Telfair the oldest public art museum in the South.
The memorial is located in the Jewish section of Bonaventure.
"Here lieth a third of the ashes of 344 cremated sacred souls, victims of Nazis, including the remains of Schmul son of Y'chell Szcerkowski who was killed on the third of Nison 5705 - March 17, 1945, brought here from Alem, Hanover Germany"
What grave is the Bird Girl statue at? Made famous as the cover image, captured by Savannah photographer Jack Leigh (also buried in Bonaventure), for John Berendt's book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The statue is no longer at Bonaventure. In 1994, to protect it, the statue was removed. It is now housed at the Telfair Museum in Savannah's historic district.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
Days & Hours: Open daily, 8 AM - 5 PM
Parking: It's free to park throughout the cemetery. If you are taking a guided tour, park near the front office.
Restrooms: Yes, there are public restrooms at the front by the entry gates.
Driving through the Cemetery: You can drive through the cemetery - parking where there is space. Note, most roads in the cemetery are not paved. It's a sandy, dirt and gravel surface. Drive slowly. There are certain paths that are for foot traffic only, those will have posts to prevent cars.
Bring with You: Visit in the summer make sure you have sunscreen, bug spray, good walking shoes, and bottled water.
Tours: Bonaventure Historical Society offers free one-hour guided tours on the second weekend of every month. Limited to 30 people per tour. Prefer to tour on your own? Download their mobile tour app for Apple and Android devices (both phone and tablet).
Third-party Tour Companies: (Note: I've personally only toured on my own, I've not taken a guided tour with these businesses.) I've seen other bloggers recommend Shannon Scott's Tour, there's also Bonaventure Cemetery Tours, Savannah Cemetery Tours with Ghost City Tours, and Gallivanter.
Supporting Preservation & Maintenance Efforts: Bonaventure Historical Society does accept donations.
RESPECTFUL ETIQUETTE WHILE AT BONAVENTURE
Don’t touch any of the tombs or memorials
Don’t pick any flowers, leave all rocks (on the ground or on headstones) alone. As mentioned on the Historical Society's website "Please DO NOT PUT ROCKS on any stone. That is a beautiful Jewish tradition by Jewish families on loved-ones monuments. It is very damaging and not appropriate outside of that context."
Don’t interrupt any memorial services and keep your distance.
Treat the cemetery like how you would want others to treat the cemetery where your family members are buried.
Drive slowly and don’t overcrowd the narrow roads
Don’t play loud music or speak loudly
If you’re visiting with children, ensure that they are not running around and speaking loudly
Any dogs should be on a leash and kept away from memorials, remember to pick up after them
Don't take photos of other people without their knowledge and permission or of active funerals.
One thing I like to do, and it may seem strange, but after I’ve photographed a memorial I say thank you to the person buried there. It feels respectful to acknowledge them for allowing me to take the photos.