Bonaventure Cemetery located in Savannah Georgia, is the memorial park made famous by the book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. But it could also be America’s most enchanted park. Savannah is a city of superlatives … America’s most haunted city, home to the First African Baptist Church, the oldest city in Georgia, home to the oldest building still standing in Georgia (Pirates House), the oldest continually operational theater in United States (Savannah Theater), and … the location of America’s most mystical garden of memories.
That would be Bonaventure Cemetery.
This particular cemetery lies outside Savannah’s historic, downtown district. The cemetery was once a plantation anchored with a stately mansion. A former owner 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. The live oaks are an integral part of the cemetery’s mysticim.
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 a lush, southern landscape which includes salt marshes and a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River. Add that natural setting to the remarkable art memorializing the sons and daughters of Savannah, and 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.
John Muir referred to Bonaventure in his book A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf (published 1867)
I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.
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.