Visit to Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia
For me, cemeteries are fun to explore. The older the cemetery the better. As a photographer I look for stories to tell with pictures. Cemeteries create an atmosphere all of their own. One of my favorite places to go when I was in college was Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, Ohio. When my professor, Father Tepe, suggested I go there to “create” I was shocked…that was until I walked through the gates and began exploring. The grounds were immaculate, with ponds, bridges, swans, geese, and seasonal flowers…it just came together. I recently went back to Spring Grove for a photo walk with my camera club. It is still beautiful and a great place to create!
When I planned my trip to Savannah, Georgia, I had heard so much about Bonaventure Cemetery…from other photographers. “You must go there!”, “No trip to Savannah is complete without a visit to Bonaventure!” Bonaventure was already on my “list” of places to visit while I was there. A friend of mine asked me to visit Johnny Mercer’s resting place and photograph it for him. Since I had planned to go there anyway, why not!
The history of Bonaventure (meaning Good Fortune) is well documented. Originally it was plantation which included over 600 acres. The land was acquired by John Mullryne and in 1764 he, his wife and daughter moved to the Bonaventure site along the St. Augustine Creek. Mr. Mullryne was active in the Georgia political system. Bonaventure remained in the in the Mullryne family until 1864 when it was sold to Savannah hotel owner, Peter Wiltberger. A portion of the acreage was developed into the Evergreen Cemetery Company at Bonaventure for use as a public cemetery. The Bonaventure Historical Society is presently responsible for the protection, preservation, and restoration of 22 gave sites in Bonaventure Cemetery. The cemetery encompasses over 100 acres and is also a city park.My friend Julie and I drove around and explored a few parks in Savannah; some were in questionable areas of town. We had to retreat to the car once when we heard a woman yelling and cursing at someone not far from where we were. We decided that Bonaventure might be a better destination and we were only a few blocks away. I pulled into the lot and parked the car and went into the office to pick up maps and to find out any details that we might need to know.
When I walked into the office there were 4 women gathered behind a table that had the maps and brochures on it. They were all dressed in various fashions of goth. One had pink hair, one with green…the woman who waited on me had black hair, was wearing a black print long sleeved top belted over a short black print skirt, black tights, black shoes. As I approached her I noticed she appeared older than the other girls, maybe mid to late 40’s. I thought she was dressed a little “young” for her age but her petite stature allowed her to carry it well. The most striking feature of this woman was her eyes. They were a golden brown. Remember, I’m at Bonaventure Cemetery, reported to be haunted…
Her first words to me were, “Who are you here to visit?” I may have chuckled out loud, but then said, “I guess that is one way of looking at it; I’d never thought of that way before.” She smiled back and said, “Yes, we want you to enjoy your visit and I can make suggestions on those you should visit while you are here.” I dropped a couple of dollars in the tip jar and that stirred a little excitement among the other girls in the room. “Oh, she made a donation; give her maps and make sure you tell her about Gracie!”
As she spoke, the woman’s eyes would change to a bright gold in color and almost glow. I turned to look at the lighting in the room thinking my eyes were playing tricks on me. There was a window behind me so I thought, “Maybe if I move and create a shadow, her eyes will be less distracting.” I tried to do that several times, casually, as she was telling me about the notables interned at Bonaventure, I could not get past the color of her eyes. I kept looking closer, they did not appear to be contacts, but her natural eye color. I told her I’d be interested in the Mercer site for sure. “Oh, you want the historical section! There are so many to visit there, you will love it!” The walls of the office were lined with posters of photographs and plot numbers and she pointed them out and gave their history in such detail, just like she was a family member. She said, “If you get lost or can’t find someone, come back down here and I’ll take you.”
She proceeded to tell me about Little Gracie Watkins whose statue stands in a lone plot. She died of pneumonia when she was six. Her family was grief stricken and they ended up moving away. Her parents are buried elsewhere, so Little Gracie is all alone and is reported to appear at times where they used to live as well as in the cemetery.
I drove into the cemetery and the moss covered oak trees gave it an ambience that it is difficult to describe in words. It was almost like you were being transported back in time. The historical section was definitely the right choice. Most of the time I just walked up and down the pathways looking at the monuments and inscriptions. Back in the 1800’s people were more poetic and it seems they romanticized death. The sculptures and monuments were more ornate. What was striking was the number of people buried in Bonaventure. We marveled at the closeness of the graves and wondered how they could get so many in one plot? Many of the graves had fresh flower arrangements on them. There were other people walking around, but not as many as I would have expected.
Photographing Bonaventure is a difficult challenge. Many of the photographs have been taken, especially at the more popular monuments. Finding a new angle or a new perspective is not easy. Sometimes just being able to document that you’ve been there is where the satisfaction lies.
One of my favorite statues in Bonaventure is one of a wife of Confederate soldier, Thomas Theus. According to a search on Thomas Theus, he had requested when he died he be buried in Confederate Gray and named his own pall bears, all Confederate War Veterans. Eliza Wilhelmina, his wife who preceded him in his death in 1895 is remembered in this monument. The statue is very delicate and was lovingly carved. The curves and the lines are smooth. She is beautiful!
I especially liked the curves in her hands. When you consider the time and detail the sculptors put into these works and the years they’ve withstood the weather, you cannot help but to admire works of art such as these. Plus they are available to view by the general public! I looked at this statue and imagined what she was thinking about. Was she waiting for her husband to come back from war? The flowing dress, the wreath, her waves in her hair, the stones she is sitting on. All of the detail and care placed in just one statue. She must have been a very special lady to be memorialized in this way!
Up the road from Bonaventure was another cemetery, Forest Lawn Cemetery. It still had character, but the newer monuments and fewer “family plots” gave it a more modern feel. The large moss covered oak trees gave it the “nostalgic” look, but the atmosphere at Forest Lawn was completely different. At Bonaventure, I felt I had been transported back in time; the old worn marble monuments, the victorian style writing. At Forest Lawn many of the monuments had not received their lovely aged patina from the weather.
One monument at Forest Lawn caught my eye. It was one of a girl holding a shell. When I arrived at Forest Lawn, I saw it from a distance and made my way to it. When I approached there was a young man standing at the grave so I casually walked by standing and taking in my surroundings. Moments later he left and I decided to take a few photographs of the monument as it reminded me of one I saw at Bonaventure. This girl was older, possibly a teen, where the other girl was much younger . The green moss on the statue punctuated the detail on the face and along the lines of the shell she was holding. The sun was strong and as I found my way around (all angles), I decided to photograph it in a silhouette. The details the sculptors put into their art is amazing. There is texture of the clothing, the hair, even the eyes have a “real” appearance to them.
When you compare the two statues (Bonaventure and Forest Lawn) you can see how the family/sculpture gained the inspiration for the one at Forest Lawn. There are as many similarities as there are differences in the two. “The Girl with the Upturned Shell” is in the Baldwin Family plot at Bonaventure. I spent much time walking around it, reading the inscription, and studying the detail in the statue.
Clearly this person was loved by her family. The care in which the statue was crafted gives one a sense of great grief the family must have felt to lost this child. A loss of a child is tragic. Our children are supposed to out live us and move forward in life. They have so much to look forward to. The inscription on the monument is 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. Powerful words on this monument. Even though the monument is not mentioned in the brochure, there are plenty of photographs on the office wall of it.
I wish there was more information available on this monument. The woman in the office made mention that I should see it…”go to the Baldwin Family Plot and see the girl with the shell, it’s lovely!”
Mercer Family Plot
One of the notable individuals interred at Bonaventure is lyricist, Johnny Mercer. I was asked before I embarked on this venture, “if there is time could you please take a few photographs of his grave?” My friend knows far more about music and writers than I will ever know. Yes, I’d heard of Johnny Mercer, but I had not really given it much thought to what works he had produced during his short life (he died at age 66 of a brain tumor). While in Savannah, I had seen Moon River, and had driven across the bridge, but it wasn’t until I saw his memorial bench did I make the connection that he had written it. That was my “duh” moment for the trip! Andy Williams made “Moon River” his signature song and that was the association I had prior to visiting the Mercer site.
Upon viewing his memorial bench, I realized he had penned many of the lyrics to songs I was familiar with. How many times have we heard “Hooray for Hollywood”, “Jeepers Creepers”, “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”, “That Old Black Magic”, and the list goes on!
Mercer married a show girl named, Ginger Meehan. They adopted a daughter named Amanda. When Mercer became ill, he developed a friendship with Barry Manilow. Mercer was quite fond of Manilow’s song “Mandy” because it reminded him of his daughter Amanda. After his death in 1976, Mercer’s wife gave Manilow some of her husband’s unfinished lyrics. In 1984, Manilow had a top 10 Adult Contemporary hit with “When October Goes”; it has since been recorded by notables like Rosemary Clooney and Nancy Wilson.
Mercer received 18 Academy Award Nominations and won 4 for his lyrics for the following songs: “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (The Harvey Girls), “In the Cool, Cool, Cool, of the Evening” (Here Comes the Groom), “Moon River” (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and “Days of Wine and Roses” (Days of Wine and Roses).
The caricature on his memorial bench is said to be a self portrait. I spent time documenting the site for my friend. While editing the photographs I noticed a few details I had missed or just plain over-looked while at the grave site. While at the cemetery, I had noticed on Mercer’s grave marker that there was an inscription: “And the Angles Sing”. I contacted my friend and he confirmed for me that was one of Mercer’s earlier songs. After I made it home from my trip I caught a glance at another inscription, “Momma Done Tol’ Me” (on his mother’s marker), then I started zooming in on the markers and on each of them were song titles…Why did I not see this before? On Mercer’s wife’s marker is “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”. His niece is buried there (died 2013), her marker has “Skylark Won’t You Lead Me There”. The other two I saw were, “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day” and “Dream when the day is thru”. All very touching and appropriate.
I was curious about the song “And the Angles Sing” so I looked up the lyrics:
We meet, and the angels sing.
The angels sing the sweetest song I ever heard.
You speak, and the angels sing.
Or am I breathing music into every word?
Suddenly, the setting is strange.
I can see water and Moonlight beaming.
Silver waves that break on some undiscovered shore
Suddenly, I see it all change.
Long winter nights with the candles gleaming.
Through it all your face that I adore.
You smile, and the angels sing.
And though it’s just a gentle murmur at the start.
We kiss, and the angels sing.
And leave their music ringing in my heart!
What red-blooded woman would not want to hear these words? To me, the words are simply poetic. That was Mercer’s trademark, simplicity. All accounts indicate what he did, he did with such ease. The beauty of his words left a permanent inscription on our history of music.
Little Gracie Watkins
My final entry is about Little Gracie Watkins. Gracie’s burial site is possibly one of the most visited sites in Bonaventure. Gracie died of pneumonia when she was 6 years old. Her family had been hired as caretakers of the Pulaski Hotel, one of Savannah’s pre-eminent lodging facilities of its day. Gracie was reported to have been the self-designated entertainment hostess of the establishment. She would sing and dance in the lobby for the guests and soon became a “public figure” at the the Pulaski.
After Gracie’s death, her parents, as well as guests at the Pulaski became heartbroken. Her parents had a photograph that was taken before her death. She was wearing her Easter best. They asked John Walz, one of Savannah’s finest sculptors of his time to create her image for her grave. The sculpture is said to be life-size and has every detail of the dress she wore in the photograph. She sits gracefully next to a tree stump. Her look is pleasant and she has a rose in her hand. Her eyes have a sullen appearance. I was very moved by the signs of affection visitors left at her grave; little trinkets, coins, etc. Over the years the cemetery had to erect a fence to protect the monument. There are rumors of people hearing her laugh, cry, and other unusual activities occurring both Bonaventure and at the former Pulaski Hotel site.How do you feel about ghosts and spirits roaming around? I have mixed feelings, but I do think there are happenings that cannot be explained with simple science or maybe our minds like to play tricks on our eyes. Gracie is intriguing because after her death her family left and never came back. She is buried here alone and her parents are buried elsewhere in New England.
The lady in the office shared a story with me that the local children would often come to Gracie’s statue before tests at school and rub her nose for luck. I thought, I need to go to the side and take a profile picture of the statue to show the wear on her nose. I leaned into the fence and focused. I pressed the shutter button on my D800E camera and an odd noise came out of the camera, kind of metallic “click”. The image was black. I tried again…same results. I looked at the statue and said, “Gracie, are you messing with me?” I then looked at my friend Julie and told her, “My camera is not working”. She just laughed. I said, “Seriously, it isn’t working, look!” I carried my camera out to her and showed her what it was doing. I tried several troubleshooting attempts and it just wouldn’t work. Fortunately I had my D700 with me as a back-up “just in case”.I put my lens on the D700 and walked over to the fence and said, “Ok Gracie, I am going to take this picture.” I took one and figured I shouldn’t tempt fate any longer. It was getting ready to storm anyway, so I figured it be best to move along. To conclude my “Gracie” story, when I arrived back to my camper, I took my camera out and began checking the settings and giving it a look over. I depressed the shutter button a couple of times and it began working again…just like normal, and has worked without a flaw since. Was Gracie really being mischievous or did I just have a coincidental malfunction while I was there? We may never know the answer to that question…
Here are a few additional images from my visit to Bonaventure Cemetery. Enjoy!