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.–John Muir, Camping Among the Tombs
As of late, I find myself deep within the trappings of my own mind again. Considerations of times past, and the way forward, flash in scenes various as I mull over the meaning and the beat of my life. And most times? I find myself in my mental eye in Bonaventure, wandering its near-endless avenues. In dreams, too, she calls to me with her many residents paying me a visit here and there. It seems I can never quite escape her, as even in sleep, Bonaventure finds me in dreams.
I first came to Bonaventure at the end of March last year, though I had been drawn to her for some time. In fact, an entire trip had been planned months prior just for the pilgrimage of reaching Savannah and Bonaventure’s gates. When planning then, I knew in a vague way that it would be a life-changing experience. As with most of life’s lessons, just how life-changing this visit would be could only be revealed later.
Originally founded in 1846 on plantation grounds on the Wilmington River, Bonaventure spreads over 100 sprawling acres of broad avenues and winding paths of trees, flowers, and of course, graves. In Victorian times, it was treated more as a garden of remembrance than somber burial ground, with family picnics and gatherings being a common occurrence (and something that should continue, I say!).
Having been to many cemeteries, from Père Lachaise and my own family’s cemetery in France, to the eight cemeteries of my home town, and everywhere in between, please hear me when I say that Bonaventure is unlike any place else on Earth. Steeped not only in Christian and Jewish tradition, but also Masonic influence, the very ground is charged with a different energy there.
Once we reached Bonaventure, I was captivated immediately by the overwhelming size and beauty of the place. As we gathered for an amazing guided after hours tour, my attention was immediately drawn to the gates and the caretaker’s house just beyond. Given the time of year, vibrant azaleas peppered pink blooms around the fresh greens of the trees. A striking composition when contrasted to the grays of the gravestones beyond. It stole my breath away before I was even truly “in it”.
Truth be told, my breath would be stolen many more times that night, and my heart set alight as we roamed the sandy trails, wandering amongst the monuments. Never have I felt so close to humanity and life, yet so very wild and lost in nature all at once. It took the occasional blare of a car horn on the street beyond to remind me that I was indeed still among the living.
The time of year could have barely been more perfect for our visit as well. The Camellia blooms were fading, but the azaleas were purely explosive, gorgeous hues of pink and violet framing the paths and gracing tombstones whose families had long since stopped bringing fresh flowers. Towering live oaks with shawls of Spanish moss draped in almost mournful repose over the graves, as if the very earth payed homage to the souls at rest.
And, oh, those souls!
It’s doubtful that most people would enter a cemetery expecting to walk out with friends, but I did manage to make quite a few dear friends that night, living and dead. Names I had either never heard before, or only knew in passing, suddenly became familiar and welcome to me, and I had ample opportunity to exercise my immortal reading tradition. Hervey, Luther, Jesse, Johnny, Conrad, Danny… the list could go on for quite some time. Even after our After Hours tour ended, we came back the next day to roam for another two hours and pay respects to all of the new “friends”.
Of all of these souls, the one that became most important to me nearly immediately was Corinne (after all, I did name my dog after her!).
Corinne’s story resonated with me for a multitude of reasons. She was an artist and firebrand who, for all appearances, lived life on her own terms and with passionate drive. Even in death, she still incites much discussion, as the particulars of her demise are an apparent source of heated debate. Regardless of the how, her life was cut short at the age of 31, and that detail was not lost on me as I, also 31, stood there feeling that my own life was ending in some way. As to the truth of her death? I find that I agree with a certain interpretation of her epitaph: “Allured to brighter worlds and led the way.”
From the first time I saw her, and every subsequent visit to Bonaventure since, I make it a point to visit her and leave her a token, just as I did for Sammy. In fact, it was in Bonaventure where I learned that what I had been doing was such a natural human behavior. Most graves in Bonaventure sport at least a memory stone or two, some more than others.
I am unsure if it was a token that triggered the dream of Corinne that I had or not, but she did come to visit me during one of my most tumultuous times in June. We sat together on the steps of her monument, her body was of stone but she breathed with life. She listened to me with quiet stillness as I told her my entire journey and shared with her my heartache. When I finished, she placed a cool marble hand on mine and said one simple sentence: “Do not choose the lesser life.”
On my hardest days, I still hear her voice and repeat her words.
Another soul who stole my heart just as much as Corinne was Little Gracie Watson. In fact, so many people love and cherish Gracie that her monument, sculpted in incredible detail by the famous John Walz, is constantly littered with gifts. Her life ended much too soon at the age of six, a sad reminder of the days before penicillin. As a mother, my heart broke as I learned her story, and of course, I leave her a gift each visit as well. And perhaps, in return, she also paid me a nighttime visit on a sweltering night in July.
Unlike Corinne, who had remained in her state of stone, I ran into Gracie as I walked through a dream version of downtown Savannah, Bull Street specifically. My surroundings were present day, but much to my surprise, Gracie came to me dressed in her burial attire, just as in her sculpture. I didn’t recognize her at first, however, because she was very much alive, cheeks rosy and eyes alight with joy. She asked me why I looked so sad.
“I’m not sad.” I lied.
“That’s what all grownups say, but I know better.” She grinned at me and paused for a moment, considering me carefully before speaking again. “But you know, it’s going to get better. And it will be better than you can ever imagine!”
And with that, she skipped off, pushing her hoop toy as cars passed by, and I woke up not realizing at first exactly who had visited. These too, are words I keep close to my heart. One day I hope to introduce Liam to Gracie, and to tell him her story.
Not all of the souls that I have met in Bonaventure have names, per se, or are connected to just one physical person. Some of them are the monuments themselves, given life by the care and talent with which they were sculpted. They seemingly have their own stories to tell, as in Victorian times, every little detail was symbolic in some way. Look and listen closely to them, and you’ll be surprised with what you learn.
The angel near the bluff, presiding over the Morgan family plot, became meaningful to me just on the premise of the name. My maiden name. My Papa’s name. This is the only other monument that I make a point to visit each time, and each time, I gaze in awe at the beauty of this star-anointed angel.
It should have come as no surprise when she, too, came to me in a dream in December. In simple terms, she found me in a dark cavern, the star on her head providing the only light, a blazing red. She beckoned for me to hold out my hands, and as I did, she took the star from her crown and placed it into my palms. It burned and I gasped from the searing light, but held fast to it.
“Are you teachable?” She asked.
Before I could answer, she had gone, and I held the star to my heart where it warmed my chest and then disappeared within me. I awoke with the word “Antares” echoing in my mind. I’d later learn all about the star Antares, and its connection to many things that I may write about later.
The gifts Bonaventure has given me far outnumber the small tokens I have left within. Indeed, there is far more I could write on what Bonaventure has given me, but I find that some of those stories are still writing themselves. Even if you are not of the meditative sort, I would urge you to visit just for the art of life and death. Modern cemeteries often lack the imagery of the metaphysical and the journey of the soul that you find in Bonaventure, as after the Victorian era, there was a shift in the overall attitude towards death and cemeteries for a host of reasons. And while there may be many Victorian era cemeteries in the world (there are 5 in Savannah alone!), Bonaventure manages to be the sum of all in her all encompassing grandeur.
Suffice it to say, Bonaventure is always near to my heart in so many ways, spoken and unspoken. She has wrapped her wire around my heart and mind, and despite what happens to my body after death, I know where my soul will visit.
If you would like to come to know and love Bonaventure as much as I do, then I highly recommend taking a tour through Bonaventure Cemetery Journeys. No one knows Bonaventure, and the many blessed souls therein, as well as they do, nor can anyone match the passion and excellence of their Storyists. It is through the keen eyes of Shannon Scott that I came to know of Corinne, Gracie, and the others as friends.
If you already love Bonaventure, or my writing has sparked a connection within you, please consider donating to the Bonaventure Historical Society. Without this lovely group of folks, Bonaventure might not be as accessible or as well kept as it stands today.
As for me, in the here and now, it has been some time since I passed through the gates of Bonaventure. It may be some time still before I go again, but she calls to me. One day, hopefully soon, I will answer. And until then, I will be Bonaventure dreaming.