Bonaventure Cemetery, named by CNN as one of the World’s 10 Most Beautiful Cemeteries, has been a world-famous tourist destination for more than 150 years. As many as 450,000 people per year visit this cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. For many, it is their family vacation. Yes, it really is that delightful.
What is it that brings visitors to Bonaventure Cemetery year after year? Its tree-lined walkways with unique cemetery sculpture and architecture make it an outdoor art museum. History buffs come to learn more about the many famous people interred there, and the folklore associated with them.
The site was initially developed as a 600-acre plantation in the early 1760s by English Colonel John Mullryne. Mullryne built his home here on a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River. He planted trees and dubbed the estate “Bonaventure” which means “good fortune.”
During the Revolutionary War, Mullryne was a staunch Loyalist, true to the British crown, as was Savannah’s royal governor Sir James Wright. When the residents of Savannah arrested the governor in 1776, Mullryne helped him escape through Bonaventure to a British naval vessel. Then he fled Savannah himself.
In 1779, after the British retook the city, Revolutionary forces and their French allies, commandeered Bonaventure following a bloody battle. Bonaventure then became a “hospital-turned-cemetery” where French, Haitian, and American troops were buried.
By the 1830s, the trees that were originally planted by Mullryne had matured into a dense canopy that captivated visitors and inspired the poem “Bonaventure by Starlight” by Henry Rootes Jackson.
“Along a corridor I tread,
High over-arched by ancient trees,
Where, like a tapestry overhead,
The gray moss floats upon the breeze.
—Henry Roots Jackson (Bonaventure by Starlight, 1842)
Another early visitor of Bonaventure Cemetery wrote, “This hallowed burial place is like a natural cathedral, whose columns are majestic trees; whose stained-glass its gorgeous forage; whose tapestries are draperies of long gray moss; whose pavement is the flowery turf; whose aisles are avenues of softened light and shade; whose monuments are these elaborate and tasteful marble shafts, which tell in simple lines the names of those who here repose in dreamless sleep.”
Camping Among the Tombs of Bonaventure Cemetery
In 1867, Sierra Club co-founder John Muir camped out in Bonaventure for nearly a week while stranded in Savannah awaiting funds to be sent to him during his thousand-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida.
Muir extolled the beauty of Bonaventure’s natural setting, animal, and plant life in his chronicle of that journey.
Muir wrote, “After going again to the express office and post office, and wandering about the streets, I found a road which led me to the Bonaventure graveyard. If that burying-ground across the Sea of Galilee, mentioned in Scripture, was half as beautiful as Bonaventure, I do not wonder that a man should dwell among the tombs.
There is but little to be seen on the way in land, water, or sky, that would lead one to hope for the glories of Bonaventure. The ragged desolate fields, on both sides of the road, are overrun with coarse rank weeds, and show scarce a trace of cultivation. But soon all is changed. Rickety log huts, broken fences, and the last patch of weedy rice-stubble are left behind. You come to beds of purple liatris and living wild-wood trees. You hear the song of birds, cross a small stream, and are with nature in the grand old forest graveyard, so beautiful that almost any sensible person would choose to dwell here with the dead.”
Savannah, Georgia’s Bonaventure Cemetery has lacy Spanish moss dripping from every tree branch, making the statues look like they are on a curtained stage.
Below are some of the interesting features and folklore connected with Bonaventure Cemetery.
French Flower Beds
Bonaventure Cemetery may be in Georgia but its roots are French as the very name of “Bonaventure” comes from a French word.
From Mardi Gras to jambalaya, the US deep South has many of its roots in France. But did you know that the French influence even extends to the cemeteries?
A common type of French gravesite features a headstone at the top with a “bed” of marble stones outlining the burial spot. The “bed” was planted with flowers. (Get it? It’s a “flower bed”!)
The Pyramid Vault
This Egyptian revival-style mausoleum, built in 1844, was originally located at the Mankinfamily plot on Daufuskie Island. The island is 14 miles from Savannah and the fact that that vault was moved at all is amazing.
The Mongin family made their wealth in the shipping industry. John Mongin was the owner and operator of the first steamboat that traversed between Savannah and Charleston. So shipping a stone mausoleum wasn’t as difficult for their family as it might have been for yours or mine. In the early 1900s, they just had it loaded onto a barge and mules pulled it down the river to Bonaventure Cemetery.
The vault was originally supposed to have been placed at another location deeper inside the cemetery, but it was so heavy that it was left to rest right where it was unloaded on the riverbank.
But the mystery that surrounds this mausoleum doesn’t stop there, it was also vandalized by grave robbers. The thieves stole everything, not only the Mongin family heirlooms but also the human remains of 11 family members.
Today, there are still marks around the door frame from the grave robbers’ tools. The door itself is welded shut. And the tomb sits empty, save for the empty coffins, right where it was delivered more than 100 years ago.
To the Memory of Those Who Sacrificed
Like most cemeteries, Bonaventure Cemetery has a special section for Veterans of World Wars.
Have you ever wondered why some gravestones have rocks on them? They are placed by visitors to show that someone still honors and remembers the deceased. This was originally a Jewish tradition.
When you have visited cemeteries, you may have seen coins on some of the military graves.
This gravestone for a World War I soldier, Harry Demosthenes is especially interesting.
It is a treestone that has been cut off at the top, symbolizing that his life was cut short. It has no branches extending out to the sides which means he did not marry or have children. The posterity on his family tree was literally cut off.
It is also interesting to note that the epitaph refers to World War I as “The World War”. Most people at that time thought that it would be the war to end all wars. Little did they know.
In 1951, the ashes of Scmul Szcerkowski were brought to Bonaventure Cemetery, along with some of the ashes of 343 others who were killed at a concentration camp in Ahlem, Germany. Szcerkowski’s children received a sponsorship from the Jewish community to help fund the effort.
Saved by the Bell
In Bonaventure Cemetery’s early years, when the medical field was still developing, doctors sometimes mistakenly pronounced people dead. Then sometimes the person revived after a few days, only to discover they were trapped in their coffin.
There are many stories of people being buried alive after falling into a vegetative state. The condition was dubbed “sleeping sickness”. Today we would say they were in a coma.
Understandably, this caused widespread fear of premature burial so some families took precautions. They sometimes buried a loved one with a rope in their hand, attached to a bell on the outside of the coffin. Then, if the person in the grave awoke, they could ring the bell to signal their need for help.
We still use the expression “saved by the bell” which came from this practice. The family would then hire someone to watch the grave, which is where the term “graveyard shift” originated.
Visitors to Bonaventure Cemetery may still see some of these bells in place today.
Keeping the Grave Robbers Out
Grave robbers were a common problem in Victorian-era cemeteries. They stole everything from rings and necklaces to the bodies themselves.
“Rest in Peace” is a common epitaph on older gravestones but this wasn’t just a trite phrase in the 1800s. Family members were genuinely concerned about their loved ones’ bodies resting in peace.
So families often went to great lengths to protect their loved one’s remains after burial. Victorian families who could afford it bought metal caskets and erected iron fences.
Maybe you have seen a fence around an individual gravesite and wondered why it was there. Now, you know . . . grave robbers! The corpses were often sold to medical schools where students used them to study the human body.
“And the Angels Sing”
One of the most notable people buried at Bonaventure Cemetery is Johnny Mercer.
Mercer began and ended his mortal sojourn in Savannah. He was born there in 1909 but later left to seek musical opportunities in New York City.
In New York, he joined Paul Whiteman’s orchestra (the most popular band in the 1920s) and wrote lyrics for Broadway musicals.
Mercer went on to Hollywood where he wrote songs for major motion pictures. Mercer produced many of the top hits from the 1930s to the 1960s.
One of his most popular songs is “Moon River” from the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Some of his other hits include, “I’m an Old Cowhand from the Rio Grande”, “Jeepers Creepers”, “Hooray for Hollywood”, “Ac-cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive”, and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” He won four Academy Awards for Best Original Song.
In 1942, Mercer co-founded Capitol Records, the US record label of the Beatles.
When Mercer died in California in 1976, his body was transported across the country to be buried in his family plot at Bonaventure Cemetery.
His wife is buried next to him with the title of one of his songs, “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby,” inscribed as her epitaph. While Mercer’s grave has an equally fitting epitaph: “And the Angels Sing”.
Symbols in Bonaventure Cemetery
This angel is gazing downward in humility while pointing upward to remind cemetery visitors that their loved ones have gone before them into heaven. Learn more about cemetery angels HERE.
Arched Gates of Heaven
Alexander Lawton was a prominent figure in Savannah Society. He served the community as a lawyer, politician, President of the Augusta and Savannah Railroad, Brigadier General in the Army of the Confederacy, and President of the American Bar Association.
His gravesite features a statue of Jesus symbolically welcoming Lawton into the arched gates of heaven.
Angel with Palm Fronds
Palm trees have been considered sacred in many regions of the world and in many religions. Here are a few examples.
- Egypt – palm branches represent immortality
- Judaism – the lulav, a date palm frond, is used in the Sukkot Festival or Feast of the Tabernacles, a thanksgiving celebration of the harvest
- Ancient Greece – a palm frond was awarded to victorious athletes
- Assyria – the palm tree is considered to be a sacred connection to heaven since its branches reach to skies and its roots are anchored in the earth
- Rome and Phonecia – palm trees appear on ancient coins
- Islam – palm trees are a symbol of rest and hospitality
To Christians, palm branches are associated with Jesus’ triumphal final entry into Jerusalem. In the Bible, it says that the people, “took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, ‘Hosanna, blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord’” (John 12:13).
Thus, to Christians, palm fronds represent the victory of the spirit over the flesh.
Angel with a Seashell
This little angel holds a seashell and has a belt of ivy. The seashell, and more specifically the scallop, is a Christian symbol for baptism. The ivy represents everlasting life since it stays green year-round.
The alcove surrounding this angel sculpture contains this scripture verse from Mark 10:15, “Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”
Little Gracie Watson
The most visited and well-known gravestone at Bonaventure Cemetery marks the final resting place of a little girl.
Gracie Watson, the daughter of a Savannah hotel manager, was the center of attention at the huge Victorian establishment. She became popular with visitors and locals alike.
But Gracie became even more well-known in death. She died of pneumonia at the age of six and a life-size statue was created in her memory.
Since that time, visitors have brought toys to leave near Gracie’s statue, especially at Christmas time.
Over the past century, a rumor spread, saying that if students rubbed the tip of Gracie’s nose they would get good grades. In the succeeding years, so many students tested that theory that the end of her nose was worn right off!
So now, Gracie’s statue is behind bars for its own protection (with a new nose job!).
Shhh! (I actually like cemeteries.)
Bonaventure Cemetery isn’t the only amazing cemetery in the world, to be sure. You wouldn’t believe how many people tell us at BillionGraves (in a hushed and often embarrassed tone) that they actually like cemeteries.
Well, why not? We do too! The sculptures and architecture, the beauty of nature, and the peaceful atmosphere exemplified at Bonaventure Cemetery are found in many others as well.
10 Cemeteries to See Before You Die
If you enjoyed this article, you may wish to check out this BillionGraves blog post: “10 Cemeteries to See Before You Die”.
We need volunteers to take gravestone photos in your local cemeteries. Click HERE to get started. You are welcome to do this at your own convenience, no permission from us is needed. If you still have questions after you have clicked on the link to get started you can email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com.
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