Communing With the Dead

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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.

A more recent & interesting head stone.

A more recent & interesting head stone.

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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 tallest marker in Bonaventure.

The tallest marker in Bonaventure.

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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.

A CSA soldier's grave is marked by a Southern Cross.

A CSA soldier’s grave is marked by a Southern Cross.

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.

 

Robert Anderson's tombstone.

Robert H. Anderson’s tombstone.

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.

The graves of children all from one family.

The graves of children all from one family.

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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

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.

This grave marker is a bench seat

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.

IMG_2985          John Mercer's grave

The grave of John Mercer. The bench seat in the Mercer family plot, enlarge it to read song lyrics.

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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.

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Little Gracie Watson's headstone

Little Gracie Watson’s headstone

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.

Second stone from right is that of Bartholomew Zouberbuhler (1720-1766), minister of Christ Church taught the children of Negro slaves, a punishable offense.

Second stone from right is that of Bartholomew Zouberbuhler (1720-1766), minister of Christ Church taught the children of Negro slaves, a punishable offense.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and I learned facts about the different types of markers that I had not been aware of before.

A pedestal marker, popular in Victorian times.  Food from a picnic basket would be spread out upon the stone allowing the family to commune with their beloved.

A pedestal marker, popular in Victorian times. Food from a picnic basket would be spread out upon the stone allowing the family to commune with their beloved.

Unmarked Civil War era graves.

Unmarked Civil War era graves.

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.

Bedstead style marker with crib style marker beside it. Perhaps a mother and child.

Bedstead style marker with crib style marker beside it. Perhaps a mother and child.

Many Victorians thought that death was little more than passing thru a door into the afterlife. This is an example of a Doorway marker. Jesus awaits them on the other side.

Many Victorians thought that death was little more than passing thru a door into the afterlife. This is an example of a Doorway marker. Jesus awaits them on the other side.

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.

Notice the stones on top the grave markers.

Notice the stones on top the grave markers.

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.

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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.

IMG_2991Here’s lookin’ at you kid…………………..

This gate to a family plot caught my eye.

This gate to a family plot caught my eye.

 

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Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Communing With the Dead

  1. Hi Gayle…for some reason, I have gotten behind on reading your posts. I just love Savannah and you have done a wonderful post all about its history…

    We haven’t visited the cemetery…pinning it for the next time. I enjoyed reading all the facts about the markers and those buried there…

    Have I also missed an update on Tucker? Hope all is well with him too!

    • Only 2 more days before we leave Savannah Gay, and there’s still so much more to see. I guess we’ll save it for next time. Tucker sees the vet tomorrow morning. We’ll know more after he is x-rayed again. I hope to make an update then. We do appreciate your thoughtfulness for asking.

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