On the second Sunday of every month the Bonaventure Historical Society offers free tours of Bonaventure Cemetery. I have always been fascinated with old burial grounds. I admire the unique old headstones. I often will stop to read the more unusual epitaphs. There is interesting history to be learned in a graveyard. I know the exact moment when this fascination began and I have my paternal grandparents to thank. When I was a young girl, I spent as much time as I could with my paternal grandmother and her second husband and not just because they doted on me but because I learned so much about the world around me from them. My grandparents were friends with a couple who were caretakers for a small Jewish cemetery. One Summer day, late in the afternoon, I went with them for a visit. Most of the tombstones towered over me and the engravings were more often than not in Hebrew so I had no idea what they said but I noticed many of them held glass inserts with photos of the deceased in them. I walked from marker to marker to look at the likenesses. The caretakers two children told me interesting tales about different plots and I was intrigued. And when the sun goes down, it’s also a cool place for a game of hide and seek.
Needless to say this isn’t the first cemetery I’ve dragged Don to and you can bet it won’t be the last.
The ground the cemetery sits on originally was a family plantation. In 1771, John Mullrynes and his son-in-law, Josiah Tattnall owned a vast amount of Georgia land including 600 acres on St. Augustine Creek, 3 miles outside of Savannah. On this acreage they built their family home. They named it Bonaventure, French for “good fortune.” As is usual for that period in time, a family plot was established on the grounds and this became the basis for the present cemetery.
The first adult to be interred here was Harriet Fenwick Tattnall in 1802, over 200 years ago, however the present day cemetery is said to be 150 plus years old. There are several sections to Bonaventure and people are still being buried there today. The section we were interested in seeing was the historical area which consisted of 8 different parcels.
We visited several of the graves belonging to Confederate soldiers. These were easy to spot because they have large Southern Cross markers on them. One of the more interesting to us was Brodie S. Herndon, he had been appointed Chief Surgeon of the Confederate States 1862-1865, supervised hospitals in Richmond, Virginia and was the first to perform a Caesarean operation.
Other notables were Josiah Tattnall III, commandeer of the Confederate Naval defenses, he is credited with having coined the phrase “blood is thicker than water” and Robert H. Anderson, a West Point graduate, attained the rank of Brigadier General during the Civil War, he was attached to the Army of Tennessee and saw battle during both the Atlanta and Carolina campaigns and fought against Sherman during Sherman’s March to the Sea.
We visited the grave of Noble Jones (1702-1775), who had arrived with James Oglethorpe, founder of Savannah. He built Wormsloe Plantation, a popular Savannah tourist attraction. Jones originally had been interred at Colonial Park Cemetery but as with many of Savannah’s wealthy families was inclined to do, he was moved to Bonaventure were he was interred into the family plot.
Aiken family plot. Conrad Aiken’s parents lie buried side by side, a murder and a suicide. The bench to the right is Conrad’s and his wife Mary’s headstone.
Two of the more recent plots we visited were those of the Aiken and Mercer families. Conrad Aiken, a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and his wife have a bench seat for a headstone. While living, the Conrad’s would frequently come to the cemetery in the evenings, sit on a bench overlooking the river to watch the boats passing by all the while drinking martinis. Thus the unique tombstone.
The grave of John Mercer. The bench seat in the Mercer family plot, enlarge it to read song lyrics.
The Mercer family plot is the final resting place for Savannah’s native son, Johnny Mercer. Mercer was one of America’s most popular songwriters. He penned thousands of lyrics, receiving 4 Oscars for movie theme songs. A few of his songs were Moon River, Winter Wonderland, At Last, Camptown Races, You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby and many, many more. Many of the stones in the Mercer plot have some of his lyrics engraved in them.
The most frequently visited burial plot is also the most photographed. It belongs to “Little Gracie.” Gracie Watson (1883-1889) tombstone is the only one within Bonaventure that is sculpted in the deceased’s likeness. The wrought iron fence surrounding her grave site is often adorned with little gifts and coins left by visitors who have been touched by her story. At the tender age of 6, just 2 days before Easter, Gracie, ill with pneumonia, died. After her death, her father quit his job and her parents moved to New York. The parents never recovered from their grief, they divorced and parted ways. Both lie buried in New England. Alone, with no known living family members, Gracie was adopted by the people of Savannah.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and I learned facts about the different types of markers that I had not been aware of before.
Wealthy families purchased burial land prior to the Civil War. During the war many Southern families fell upon hard times. Loved ones would be interred in the family plot, their graves marked by garden tiles. The idea was to to add markers later when the family regained it’s wealth and standing. Many families did not.
Another Interesting thing Wilma told us about was the Jewish custom of putting pebbles on top tombstones. The rocks symbolize the permanence of memory. A stone left on top of a marker is a symbol that the deceased lives on in the memory of his visitor. The custom is so endearing that it has become popular with non-Jewish as well. as you can see by the stones left on top of these headstones in the American Legion section.
The one marker I would have liked to had seen and photographed is no longer in the park. It is the statue shown on the cover of the book “In The Garden of Good and Evil.” Because of desecration to the marker by fans of the book/movie, the family requested the stone be removed and placed in the Telfair Modern Art Museum in downtown Savannah. It is a pity the excesses some people will do to get a souvenir.
We spent a good 3 hours or so at Bonaventure, which only a little over an hour was spent on the tour. The hauntingly beautiful appearance of the grounds and the history we learned made this a visit well worth our time. I would recommend a tour of this graveyard to anyone planning a visit to Savannah.