Bonaventure Cemetery Tour | An Honest Review and Travel Guide
About 20 minutes from downtown Savannah is Bonaventure Cemetery. This is one of Savannah’s most visited places and it’s easy to understand why. The cemetery is lined with live oak trees and blooming flowers in the spring and summer. Plus, it borders the Savannah River which adds to its serenity.
The cemetery is quite large. You can drive through parts of it and explore more on foot. There are gardens, the American Legion Field and a Jewish chapel and burial area. There are also some notable graves which have interesting stories.
In this article, I’ll share some of the things I learned on my tour with Shannon Scott Tours. I’ll give you my honest tour review, a lesson on cemetery etiquette and tips for planning a visit to Bonaventure Cemetery.
Bonaventure comes from “Buona Ventura”
The name Bonaventure comes from the Italian buona ventura which means “good fortune”. There are other sources which say it comes from the French “bonne aventure”, but either way it means the same thing.
Bonaventure used to be a Plantation
Before it was a cemetery, Bonaventure was a plantation; the enslaved people on it produced timber and bricks. Some of these bricks were used in the 22 squares in the downtown core of Savannah. You can also see some bricks which line the plots of land around some grave sites. These bricks have the tic-tac-toe pattern.
Bonaventure is a Cemetery, not a Graveyard
If you don’t know the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery, don’t worry, neither did I. The main difference is that a graveyard is attached to a church and they're often smaller than cemeteries.
The headstones in graveyards tend to be simple, displaying only names and dates. Elaborate tombstones and artwork were saved for cemeteries. The reason for this was that people would often hurry over a graveyard to get to the church, so there was no desire to spend time commissioning elaborate memorials.
Bonaventure Cemetery was A Park
During the Victorian era, the wealthy people of Savannah used to come to Bonaventure Cemetery and use it as a park. At the time the space was more open and still very green, making it the ideal place for leisurely strolls, sporting events, theatre and even parties.
Bonaventure was used to treat French and Haitian soldiers
In 1779, during the Civil War, the land of Bonaventure plantation was used as a hospital. Many Haitian and French troops were treated here after the first siege of Savannah. Though it hasn’t been confirm, it is believed that many of these soldiers were buried in the cemetery with unmarked graves. You can learn more about these Haitian solders on a black-history tour in downtown Savannah. I more talk about it in my travel guide to Savannah.
The Live Oaks are really old
Historians have noted that many of the live oak trees in Bonaventure are over 250 years old. The two oldest ones are said to be by the American Legion field. Our tour guide also told us that the Spanish moss that dangles from the trees changes color with the weather.
When it’s dry they tend to be brown and after rain they turn bright green. Bonaventure cemetery is also filled with blooming flowers in the spring, making it a particularly wonderful time to visit.
Good night, don’t let the bed bugs bite
Take this with a grain of salt, because there are many sources for the origin of this term but our tour guide has claimed one of them came from Savannah. Apparently, people in the Victorian era loved the beautiful Spanish moss that would cover the live oak trees. They would often use it to decorate their house and stuff their bedding. What they didn’t pay attention to was the fact that Spanish moss was home to many little critters like spiders.
There are suspicious Magic activities in the cemetery
There were a few headstones throughout the cemetery that are adorned with children’s toys. I assumed the toys were gifts for the child who had passed away but we were told they were used for a much darker purpose - dark magic to be exact.
Apparently, when the cemetery closes for the night it’s common for it to receive visitors who perform rituals. One of these involves trying to lure the spirit of an innocent child to help with money spells. The toys are used as a way to tempt the child’s spirit. It’s certainly one explanation for the toys, not sure what I believe.
The Bird Girl Statue is in a museum
There is often disappointment from people who visit the Bonaventure Cemetery looking for the famous Bird Girl, or Little Wendy. This is a bronze statue made in 1936 and used on the cover of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
This statue became such an attraction that it has since been moved to the Telfair Academy in Savannah. If you’re a fan of the book and movie, some parts of the production were filmed inside the cemetery.
There is a JEwish Section of the Cemetery
To the South of the cemetery is the Jewish circle and chapel. In 1733, roughly 40 Jewish people left Europe and settled in Savannah. This makes the Jewish community in Savannah the third oldest in America.
In this section of the cemetery you’ll find a Holocaust memorial. There is also a second entrance to the cemetery so that it adheres to Jewish customs of entering and exiting through different doors.
If you’re interested in Jewish history, you may want to learn about the Jewish Quarter in Rome. It was a part of the city I knew nothing about and was fascinating. I promise, you’ll learn something new.
Musician and Singer Johnny Mercer is buried in Bonaventure
One of the most frequented graves in Bonaventure belongs to Johnny Mercer. He is buried among his family, most notably his mother who was a huge influence on his career as a singer/songwriter.
When Johnny was a boy, his mother used to take him to black clubs where Johnny developed his appreciation for music. He used these early influences in his songwriting. In fact when he founded Capital Records it was said that he did blind auditions so that he could focus solely on the music and not the singer’s appearance.
You will probably know some of his most famous songs like, ”Jeepers Creepers” which was his first Oscar nomination for Best Song in 1938. He went on to win 4 Academy Awards including Best Song in 1961 for “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
John Walz sculpted over 80 pieces in the cemetery
German-born John Walz spent his career becoming one of America’s greatest sculptors. He created over 80 pieces in Bonaventure cemetery, including his most famous, Little Gracie. When walking through the cemetery, look at some of the realistic statues and see if you can spot the “Walz” signature inscribed in the stone.
Although he spent his life mastering this craft, his personal grave, which is in Bonaventure, had no headstone.
Little Gracie got a new nose
Little Gracie is one of the most popular graves in the cemetery. Gracie was the daughter of the owner of the Polaski House Hotel. She was 6 years old when she died from pneumonia and it devastated the hotel and community.
John Walz, made the “Little Gracie” sculpture which is incredibly lifelike. Her grave brought in so many visitors to pay respects that her nose eventually broke off from all the touching. Bonaventure has now put a gate surrounding her for protection.
The Cemetery Layout is a Skull
If you look at the layout of Bonaventure cemetery on a map you should be able to see the resemblance of a side profile of a skull. Plantation Square is the eye and it looks out east towards the water.
Shannon Scott Tours - My Review
I decided to do a tour of Bonaventure because I wanted a deeper understanding of the property and the notable graves. I paid for this tour myself and have no affiliation with Shannon Scott Tours. I simply chose them because they had the best online reviews.
The tour itself was an enjoyable experience, we had Lisa-Marie as our tour guide and she was an excellent story teller. She mixed in stories about the families at Bonaventure, with history and a few ghost tales.
While I was entertained, there were a few points that differed from other sources. Mainly common misconceptions about phrase origins. With that being said, I’d still recommend the tour if you’re looking to visit.
Book the Tour
Address: 330 Bonaventure Rd, Thunderbolt, GA 31404
Tour Time: 8am or 10am - advanced booking required (2 hour tour)
Cost: $25 USD (non-private tour)
Plan a visit to Bonaventure Cemetery
If you’re not planning on doing a tour, here are some helpful tips:
The cemetery grounds are open: 8am-5pm every day
The office is open 8am-5pm Monday - Friday and the visitors center is open on the weekends 10am-4pm
Admission is free
Parking is free and can be found near the visitors center
Get a free map at the front office or pay for a more detailed guide
Bring water, bug spray and sunscreen - it gets hot
The Bonaventure Historical Society offers free guided tours at 2pm and 2.30pm one Sunday every month. Here is a calendar and details for the free guided tour.
Grab food before or after the tour at one of these restaurants in Savannah
Etiquette At Bonaventure Cemetery
Don’t veer off the designated paths onto the plots and gravesites
Don’t touch any of the tombs or memorials
Don’t interrupt any memorial services and keep your distance. Remember these are families in mourning and they take priority over visitors.
Park only in designated areas
Don’t play loud music or speak loudly
If you’re visiting with children, ensure that they are not running around and speaking loudly
Any dogs should be on a leash and kept away from memorials, remember to pickup after them
Don’t pick any flowers or take pieces from the garden home as souvenirs. For good souvenirs, check out this guide to boutique shopping in Savannah.