Bonaventure Cemetery - Ghosts, Gardens and Art on the Wilmington River
Savannah, Georgia is a city of superlatives ... America's most haunted city, home to the First African Baptist Church, the oldest city in Georgia with oldest building still standing in the state (Pirates House), the oldest continually operational theater in United States (Savannah Theater), and ... the most scenic cemetery in America.
That would be Bonaventure.
This particular cemetery lies outside the historic city limits. It was once a plantation graced with a beautiful mansion owned by a man who planted a live oak every 15 feet along the roadway winding through the plantation. Some of those oaks still stand. These holy trees nurture the landscape, holding the memories of all that has happened at Bonaventure, every sorrow, every joy.
Locals say one Christmas around 1800, there was a great party at the plantation house. A fire broke out. The host didn't panic, rather he simply moved the party outside, apparently unruffled by the drama. The house burned and burned, but the host and guests remained calm and celebratory refusing to allow the tragedy to dampen the festivities. They dined outside while the house burned to the ground. The host cast his wine glass against an oak tree as a sign of celebration. His guests copied his action in some sort of high-spirited demonstration of happiness despite the uncontrollable destruction in the background. They laughed, they sang, they danced. On cool autumn nights when the moon and wind are just right, lurkers near Bonaventure hear the crashing of goblets against the oak and the laughter of the guests.
A great Live Oak dominates the entrance of Bonaventure Cemetery. Perhaps it's the same one that took the brunt of the hurled wine glasses that Christmas long ago. Stories from of Savannah's past like the one of the plantation owner hang thick over Bonaventure. Every plot, has a story. Many are decorated with stone memorials that open the door to that eternal world for the visitor that has a spirit sensitive to art.
Conrad Aiken's stone with the quote, "Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown"rests just opposite of his parents who died as a result of a murder / suicide when Conrad was just a child. Composer, Johnny Mercer lies in a family plot where all his family members have epitaphs extracted from the text of his songs. Scores of Civil War soldiers are memorialized, some with their swords, bronzed and melded to the burial vaults. Then there's little Gracie Watson. The silent tomb of a six year only child of parents who ran a large hotel in town. Just before Easter they bought Gracie a new outfit and had her photograph made. She died six weeks later. The grief stricken parents had her buried at Bonaventure and marked her grave with a life size statue sculpted by John Walz.
Savannahians wanted Bonaventure to be like a park where visitors could come and walk in a peaceful setting, surrounded by the lush, southern landscape dappled with remarkable art memorializing the sons and daughters of Savannah. The art at Bonaventure speaks in a way art in a house or museum cannot. In this place, the setting is married to the art object and together they create a tapestry that includes every image in the setting... including the visitor.
Bonaventure has a magnetic draw, pulling the visitor into someplace not of this world. Into the stories of the people under the markers, into the landscape itself where the visitor becomes an image in a working story that hasn't ended yet.
We visited Bonaventure with our son and daughter-in-law and our little granddaughter. Our Bonaventure story is captured in the slide show below. It shows contrast between life and death, sadness and joy, hope and despair in that quintessential southern setting. This stop was my favorite of the entire Savannah visit.