Bonaventure: Touring Savannah’s Beautiful, Eerie Cemetery

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Image by Melissa Hayes

While we were visiting Savannah, we decided a tour of Bonaventure Cemetery, made famous by the novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, would make an atmospheric addition to our October.

Deciding On a Tour

Bonaventure, which dates to the Victorian era, is located east of Savannah on the Wilmington River. Even though it’s outside of the main historical district, it’s one of the city’s more popular tourist destinations. The cemetery is open daily and is free to enter. The Bonaventure Historical Society, a non-profit group dedicated to preserving and restoring the cemetery, offers free tours monthly. There are also many commercial tours available, some with golf carts or Segways to cut down on the walking, but you can just show up and walk the grounds yourself, no reservation needed.

The Visitor’s Center, located at the main entrance to the cemetery, is staffed by Historical Society volunteers who offer maps and touring suggestions to visitors. The Society also offers an inexpensive app (proceeds benefiting their conservation efforts) with a tour itinerary for the historical section of the cemetery, complete with commentary, a map, and a GPS locator.

Because we were fitting this tour around other obligations, we went for the app and set off to see what we could see.

Finding Our Way to the Tour Starting Point

Here’s where I have to mention that I have ZERO sense of direction. None. Nada. Zilch. So (of course), I promptly got off-course and ended up roaming around for a while, trying to figure out where the tour started. (Spoiler alert: it’s down the nice, paved road that has sidewalks, not the unpaved walkway that winds off to the side, but see above re: me and the lack of any sense of direction.)

Once we sorted things out (thanks to the map included in the app) and found the historic district of the cemetery, the directions and the GPS were good enough that even I could find my way from point to point. Normal, non-directionally challenged people should be fine right from the start, but be aware that the starting point is about a quarter of a mile from the entrance.

Touring the Cemetery With an App?

The tour highlights about 20 points of interest. We spent about 2 hours at Bonaventure, including the side-trip at the beginning and frequent stops to figure out a nice angle for pictures. The app tour is narrated by various Savannah residents, historians, and a few of the more well-known professional tour guides.

It turned out to be almost perfect for our family. We easily found the gravesites and memorials for Johnny Mercer (we have a musical theater kid) and the author Conrad Aiken (hello, writer/reader here.) Our favorite parts, though, were the family plots that are well-known for their statuary and carvings.

Image by Melissa Hayes

Because the app let our tour be self-paced, we didn’t have to worry about spending extra time taking pictures or looking up the meaning of symbols carved into some of the memorials.

(I feel like I have to mention that the “Bird Girl” statue from the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has been relocated to the Telfair Museum in the city and the statue of little Gracie Watson in her Easter finery is behind a wrought-iron fence, both steps having been taken to protect the statues from over-enthusiastic fans.)

What We Wanted More Of

The app tour touches lightly on multiple topics such as the various symbols of life and death used to decorate graves during the Victorian era, how Savannah was saved from Sherman during the Civil War, and the intermittent epidemics that ravaged the city. This is fine if you know anything about the topics, but not really enough to gain any real depth. We also would have liked to have learned more about the Jewish section of the cemetery. We stopped at the Visitors’ Center on our way out, but it was busy and we were on a tight schedule, so we weren’t able to ask anything further.

Overall, though, the tour provided by the app was definitely a winner. The narration was especially nice and added a bit more flair than simply walking the grounds with a paper map. We covered about 3 miles according to my fitness tracker, though at least some of that was my improvisational entry. You can also drive to the historical section and start the tour from there; that’s about a quarter of a mile in each direction. There is limited parking, but the volunteers mentioned that parking on the side of the paved roads is fine so long as you’re not blocking traffic.

Tips For Touring

A few things we decided were important to know:

  • Wear comfortable walking shoes. Closed-toe is best because the smaller paths are sandy.
  • Go in the morning, before the heat gets oppressive (yes, even in the fall.)
  • Bug spray is also a good idea–the ‘no-see-ums’ are all over the place.
  • Bring water! We didn’t see any drinking fountains once you’re past the Visitor’s Center.
  • Bathrooms are located at the Visitor’s Center at the front gates.
Image by Melissa Hayes

For older kids, or those with a special interest in history, touring Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery is a great way to spend a a few hours (or a day.) This is especially true in the fall when the leaves on the live oaks are dropping and the Spanish moss is even more visible. It can be eerie, but not scary: a perfect fit for October.

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