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Address 330 Bonaventure Road
It may seem unusual to count a cemetery as among a city’s best attractions, but Bonaventure Cemetery is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Savannah.
A southern interpretation of the naturalistically-styled “rural” cemeteries of the mid-to-late 19th century, Bonaventure Cemetery has been renowned for its gothic arches of live oak and Spanish moss, its atmosphere, and its history for more than a hundred years. It was a favorite stop on sightseeing tours well before it was brought to the national attention by John Berendt’s bestselling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the subsequent film of the same name.
Bonaventure is the repository of an outstanding collection of Victorian funerary sculptures, and is home to many of Savannah’s most notable historical, cultural and political figures (please note, however, that its most famous statue, the Bird Girl, currently resides downtown, at the Jepson Center).
The cemetery is situated around five miles east of downtown Savannah, just north of the fishing community of Thunderbolt (330 Bonaventure Road, see on map).
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The land that would become Bonaventure was settled around 1761 by two families, the Mullrynes and the Tattnalls. For almost a century, it was worked as two plantations. The live oaks for which Bonaventure is famous (the southern live oak, Quercus virginiana) were first planted out during this period.
By the mid 19th century, the Bonaventure estate belonged to Josiah Tattnall III, grandson of its original settler. A naval man, he spent little time in Savannah. In 1846, Tattnall sold 600 acres of Bonaventure to Peter Wiltberger, a local businessman whose ventures included one of Savannah’s prime hotels, the Pulaski House.
Wiltberger, admiring the dignified solemnity of Bonaventure’s arching live oaks, considered the grounds to be a perfect setting for a cemetery. He incorporated the Evergreen Cemetery Company in 1847, but was never himself able to realize his dream of making a cemetery of Bonaventure.
For more than two decades, the new company remained inactive. Development of the plantation into a cemetery didn’t begin until after the Civil War, finally taken up by Wiltberger’s son in 1869. Evergreen Cemetery operated as a private burial ground until 1907, selling higher-priced lots to Savannah residents who sought an alternative to the city-owned Laurel Grove.
By the late 19th century, the expansion of Savannah’s streetcar system allowed the public readier access to Bonaventure, formerly accessible only to those with horses or carriages to carry them the several miles from city to cemetery.
In 1907, the City of Savannah purchased Bonaventure as a replacement municipal cemetery for the now-full Laurel Grove North (Laurel Grove South, the segregated African-American burial ground, remained in use).
In the 1930s, the city acquired an addition to Bonaventure. Known as the Greenwich Addition, later Greenwich Cemetery, it was made from the grounds of the historic Greenwich Plantation.
Copies of the Historical Society Guide produced by the Bonaventure Historical Society are available from Visitors Center, inside the administration building at the cemetery’s main gate. The guide outlines the history of Bonaventure and some of its burials and shows the location of several of the grave sites and sections most commonly looked for by visitors.
Around a dozen guided historical tours of Bonaventure Cemetery are available, including free monthly tours offered by the Bonaventure Historical Society, and several that include round-trip transportation from Savannah’s Historic District.
The statue marking the grave of “Little Gracie Watson” is one of Bonaventure’s most frequently-visited sights. Gracie, the only daughter of the manager of the Pulaski House hotel, died in 1889 at only six years of age, a victim of pneumonia.
Her parents commissioned the statue from the sculptor John Walz (who went on to produce many of Bonaventure’s funerary sculptures). Gracie is the subject of several Savannah folk tales, her spirit said to haunt both her grave in Bonaventure and the site of the former Pulaski Hotel on Johnson Square.
Conrad Aiken was a prolific Savannah writer, poet and novelist, and winner of the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Aiken’s Savannah childhood ended when he was eleven. Following his father’s murder-suicide of himself and Aiken’s mother, he moved to Massachusetts where he was raised by his aunt. He spent most of his life in the North, and later in England, returning to Savannah for what would be his last decade.
Edythe Chapman was an actor, famous for her appearances on stage and later in the new silent films of the 1920s. Chapman was born in Rochester, New York, and died in California. She was buried, nonetheless, in Savannah.
John David Leigh II was a writer and photographer. He was born in Savannah. Leigh’s most widely known work is the image of the Bird Girl statue used for the cover of John Berendt’s nonfiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
John Herndon Mercer was a Savannah songwriter, lyricist and singer, active primarily in the two decades between the mid 1930s and mid 1950s. He moved to New York in the 1920s, and afterwards to Hollywood, to work as a songwriter for the emerging film industry. He died in California, his body returned to Savannah to be buried at Bonaventure.
Edward Telfair was a prominent politician, serving three terms as Governor of Georgia. Scottish by birth, he moved to America in the 1750s, settling first in Virginia, then North Carolina, and then in Savannah, where he became a successful merchant.
Mary Telfair was a wealthy heiress and philanthropist, who took a considerable interest in culture and politics. Amongst her benefactions is Savannah’s Telfair Museum of Art, created at her behest from the house she had inherited from her brother.
Peter Wiltberger was a prominent Savannah business and former sea captain, employed in the trade to China. Wiltberger bought the Bonaventure Plantation from Josiah Tattnall in 1846, intending to turn it into a cemetery, as it is today. He died before he was able to put his plans into effect, however, that task falling to his son, William Henry Wiltberger, and the years after the Civil War.
William Brown Hodgson was a noted diplomat and scholar, his work in both fields primarily encompassing the countries of North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Born in Georgetown, District of Columbia, he later moved to Savannah.
Hodgson was associated with the prominent Savannah Telfair family through his marriage to Margaret Telfair (the daughter of Edward Telfair), herself a wealthy woman who built and dedicated the Georgia Historical Society’s library and headquarters, Hodgson Hall, in his honor.
Savannah’s Jewish community purchased this 20-acre section of Bonaventure in 1909. The Jewish Section was the last addition to the cemetery proper, bringing the grounds to their present size of 160 acres.
Located in Section Q, the Jewish Section is marked off from the rest of the cemetery by an archway. Another separate gateway at the entrance to Bonaventure provided alternative access to this section of the cemetery, a little way down the road from the main entrance. Stars of David were placed atop its gateposts, instead of the figures of the Virgin Mary at the cemetery’s principal entrance.
A chapel inside the section, dating from 1917, is one of only two surviving historic buildings in the cemetery, and the only mortuary chapel located within any of Savannah’s cemeteries. One room is used for services, the other was historically used for the preparation of bodies.
A grave marker inside the Jewish portion of Bonaventure (lot 415) commemorates 344 victims of the Holocaust.
The American Legion Field, commemorating veterans of the First and Second World Wars, is located in Section O, lots 53 to 65 and 163 to 168. Local American Legion posts hold ceremonies each Memorial Day in honor of Savannah and Chatham County veterans.
This section, devoted to Savannah’s citizens of Greek heritage, is also the site of a memorial to veterans of the Spanish-American War.