The Garden Cemetery
A statue of Corinne Lawton gazes somewhere into the distance. The white marbling of her eyes absents them, turning her stare into a blank longing. Behind her Jesus Christ stands casually to the side of a richly carved marble archway, his hand extended. It is unclear who is beckoning whom. Behind the archway of the Christ, the Wilmington River rolls through the Savannah marshes, a low tide and breeze lifting the ripe smell of brine and crustaceans. Live oaks trees, with their elephantine trunks and draperies of swaying moss, provide cool shade from the coastal heat and humidity.
My three-year-old daughter is playing near the embankment of the river, fascinated by the sticks and pebbles that she hurls vainly down the slope trying to reach the water. My father, wearing jeans and a windbreaker, kneels next to her, blocking her from tottering down into the tidal mud below. I sit down on the fat part of an exposed oak root the size of an anaconda and rest.
Who is Miss Lawton? I can’t say. She’s been dead for a hundred years now. She has a story, somehow intertwined with Savannah’s history, but I don’t feel inclined to know it. Instead I watch my daughter maneuvering around my father. She is a determined child and I wonder if she’ll pull some kind of Heisman move, arm out, thigh up, jukng past my father and diving headfirst off the slope, crossing the endzone and landing in a bed of oysters. Then, squirrel. She’s off in a different direction. I relax and take in this idyllic landscape, the eye first drawn to the curving blue river and then back again to the sculpted angels that hover beneath the emerald ceiling of oaks and moss. This is Bonaventure. This is my resting place. I come here frequently with my camera, trying to capture in pictures the inarticulable essence of this place. At other times, I just sit on one of the benches near the water and watch the birds swoop and hover just above the surface of the river. Bonaventure will also be my resting place when I am dead, only I don’t know it yet. I am dying of cancer now, though I don’t know that either.
At times, it seems as though the city of Savannah was built upon its dead. Revolutionary and Civil War heroes, governors and statesmen, pirates, authors, musicians and poets … they are spread throughout the city’s underground like the roots of those great oak trees extending for miles beneath the city. There is Colonial Cemetery, established in 1750 – Savannah’s first cemetery. There is Laurel Grove, established in 1853 – with a North section for whites and a South section for blacks, an eternal statement on Jim Crow and Georgia’s tangled history on civil rights. But the dead are not contained to cemeteries in Savannah. Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene, George Washington’s personal choice to retake the South from the British, lies in Johnson Square, one of the famous parks that grid downtown Savannah. Yamacraw Chief Tomo-Chi-Chi, who helped General James Oglethorpe establish the colony of Georgia, is buried in Wright Square beneath a great granite stone.
Then there is Catholic Cemetery, established and maintained by the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, with its rows of bronzed and rusty grave markers stamped with the letters C.S.A. — Confederate States of America. My family has a lot in Catholic. We are part of the large contingent of the Irish-Catholic Americans that have infused the city of Savannah with a certain Celtic wryness over the generations. Every year the city hosts the second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the country, the Savannah River’s water running green and the rounded cobblestones of River Street sticky with beer, ice cream and vomit, partiers wandering door to door along the blocks of once-decrepit warehouses converted into bars, restaurants and hotels – massive wooden doors cut into thick stone, balconies overlooking the river, views of the massive cargo container ships, floating cities that churn slowly up the river’s currents, tugboats trailing like nervous flies.
And then there is Bonaventure, the grand dame of Savannah’s cemeteries. Bonaventure is not simply a burial ground but a hundred-acre city of sculpture, art and lore. Massive mausoleums sit like small mansions on the grounds. Sculpted angels hover in every corner, as if protecting not just the dead but Bonaventure itself. Headstones centuries old, corrupted by time with brown and black age spots spilling downward like tears of ageless mourning. Commodore Josiah Tattnall III, who famously declared blood to be thicker than water and whose family unintentionally founded the cemetery, lies in Bonaventure. As does renowned big band crooner Johnny Mercer, whose burial marker urges all those angels to sing. There is the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Conrad Aiken. Indeed, there is an entire booklet, with cleansed biographies, dedicated to the Savannah elite buried here. The book doesn’t mention patriarch Josiah Tattnall’s betrayal of the American Revolution. Nor does it mention that Aiken’s parents, who lie next to him, were the victims of a murder-suicide. (Well, one was a victim.)
You would be forgiven for believing that Bonaventure’s fame rose entirely out of the sales of John Berendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, where the graveyard’s midnight hour is said to provide a half hour for doing good and another half for doing evil. Photographer Jack Leigh’s now-famous portrait of the haunting repose of the Bird Girl, head tilted lightly in a halo of dying light, eyes blankly questioning, as if in wonder at the very presence of the living here, discomfits us from the cover of Berendt’s book. Midnight is a rather standard tale of good and evil – boy meets boy, boy murders boy, boy goes through countless trials in complex American legal system. It is not the plot but the curious characters of Savannah that would situate the book atop the New York Times bestseller list for more than four years and spawn a major motion picture. And no character stands out more curiously than Bonaventure Cemetery itself; it is the heart of darkness in this Southern Gothic tale with its colorful cast of the living and the dead and those somewhere in between.
Bonaventure’s national reputation, however, dates back long before Johnny Williams sought the help of a voodoo priestess to free him of murder charges and a conscience during the midnight witching hour.
I’ve returned to Bonaventure with my wife, Dena. It’s been some five years since my daughter challenged the river’s edge. We pull up to the entrance of the cemetery, gated by two rough-hewn granite columns with angelic sculptures perched sorrowfully atop carrying Christ’s burden of the cross. A bronze plaque on one says Bonaventure Cemetery; on the other, it proclaims National Registrar of Historic Places. Black wrought-iron gates are pulled inward, allowing enough room for one car to enter at a time. The branches of an old oak, covered with lush ivy and sweeping moss, arch the gateway like the grand entrance to a Victorian mansion.
We drive through the gates and park in front of the cemetery office, a red brick building to the right of the gate. The building is old, with creaky wooden floors and the smell of books that haven’t been opened for years. So of course, I open one. Archives. Name upon name typed on thin, yellowed parchment. I’m trying to find the name Battle when James steps out of one of the back offices. When I tell him we’re interested in buying a lot, he offers us a very practiced facial expression that says: “Of course you are.” In his eyes we are like the intoxicated young couples dropping in on a Las Vegas church to ask about a quickie marriage and, then, when nobody’s looking, run giggling from the room.
“There’s only one section still open for purchasing lots,” he says, hopeful that might put an end to any touristy nonsense. We don’t blink, so he next slides a handbook across a table toward us: Rules and Regulations of Municipal Cemeteries. It is filled with fourteen sections, complete with Roman numerals of bureaucracy. It includes phrases like “vegetation management,” “vehicle and traffic regulations,” and “specified rights retained by the city.”
Oh, you’re good, James, real good. But I didn’t drive ten hours, breathlessly arriving just before closing time, to be intimidated by words like “columbarium” and “cremains.”
“Did you guys make up this word?” I ask. “Cremains doesn’t seem like a real word to me.”
“Cremains are the remains of somebody who has been cremated,” says James. “Cremated. Remains. Cremains.”
We follow James in his large pickup truck along a network of paved and dirt roads to Section T, near southeastern section of the cemetery. I’m surprised that there is any land available at all given the age and fame (or notoriety, as the case may be) of the cemetery. With the wild success of the books and movie, Bonaventure has become one of the top destination points for Savannah visitors. Which, admittedly, does give pause. Do I want to spend eternity as part of a tourist map? (Because, yes, there is a map.) Would it be like those B-List actors in Hollywood who suffer buses of gawkers, maps in hand, slow-rolling by their homes? Remember that guy, the one with the hair, who starred in that movie? Think he still lives there with that girl, the one he got pregnant? Or, wait, maybe that was the other guy.
I don’t suppose I have much to worry about, though. It’s not likely that my name will be added to the list of worthwhile stops on the tour. Which suddenly disappoints me.
“How do I get my name added to the brochures listing all the famous people buried here?” I ask James.
He’s a middle-aged black man with an expansive laugh, and he’s eyeballing us, still trying to decide whether we’re serious. “Just get famous, I guess,” he says. “Or rich. Those folks can do just about whatever they want.”
“What about one of the roads going through here?” I offer. “I saw on the map that Johnny Mercer has one named after him. What’s a guy got to do to get a street sign with his name on it?”
James’ laugh rings out, but his back is to me. He’s walked off with Dena, showing her the dimensions of potential plots. He’s got some kind of tool meant to dig into the earth, but it’s not a shovel. It’s used to find lot markers that have burrowed beneath grass and dirt. Still, seeing him there with it, his armed draped casually over the top of the handle, I can’t help but think of Yorick’s skull – and Hamlet’s lament:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs?
Around 1770 John Mullryne and Josiah Tattnall joined families through wedlock and established Bonaventure Plantation – the name meaning Good Fortune. It consisted of some 750 acres of land along the Wilmington River. Fortune would not smile upon the families. The grand plantation mansion was barely built when, during a dinner party, the roof caught fire. There was no chance of salvaging the house – though, Savannahians being Savannahians, there was certainly no reason not to salvage a good dinner party. They simply moved the wine – the entire dining room, in fact – outside to the garden and toasted the burning home in the warm glow of the fire. A few years later, both the Mullrynes and the Tattnalls would choose wrongly in the American Revolution and be run off by the Savannah Revolutionary Council, losing the plantation.
Josiah Tattnall’s son would eventually return to America, pledge his allegiance to the new American states – and go on to serve Georgia as one of its first governors. He also reclaimed Bonaventure, which he eventually turned over to his son – the third Josiah Tattnall and a commodore in the Confederate Navy. (The Tattnalls seemed forever on the wrong side of wars.) A seaman at heart the Commodore spent little time at Bonaventure and sold the plantation to a Savannah entrepreneur named Peter Wiltberger in 1846. Wiltberger had ideas for building a public cemetery, marking the official founding of Bonaventure Cemetery.
As part of his deal with Commodore Tattnall, Peter Wiltberger agreed to maintain the Tattnall family burial plot, which would eventually become the heart of the cemetery. But Wiltberger had bigger plans than a simple burial ground. By 1846 the fashions and trends of Victorian Europe had made their way to America – including a more romanticized concept of death. Extravagant mourning rituals developed, as did the concept that a cemetery should serve as more than a place to stuff bodies in the earth. They were to be parks, estates where families went for Sunday strolls and young men took paramours for picnics. They were to become, in short, “garden cemeteries.” And Wiltberger, and his son after him, would build one of America’s earliest.
I’m paused near James’ truck, reluctant to move. It’s August and the heat is oppressive. Several acres of untouched land lie before us. We are free to choose from the whole of it. It seems a little overwhelming. Just go out there and pick a spot … for all eternity.
We aren’t the first in this section of the cemetery; other monuments are already planted, bringing some life to the land like bony floral arrangements. Down by the river, benches serving as family memorials, face the water. They tempt me, like years past, to sit in the shade and watch the river roll by.
“We just pick any space we want,” I ask? Maybe I’m stalling.
I step back and survey. There is so much green; privacy abounds. In the distance a lone great live oak unfolds from the earth like a mushroom cloud casting shade in every direction. I want to be closer to the river, though. And, greedy perhaps, I want more than one tree. All my years spent in Savannah were years spent driving down the tree-tunnel streets of Victory Drive and Liberty Street, the gnarly branches overarching the roads like soldiers saluting a king. Windshields mottled with the waving shade as sunlight fought its way through the curtained moss. It was like driving through an open palace with great stained-glass windows. I wanted my own palace with my own dancing shade.
The dead were overrunning Europe. The continent’s great cities, especially London and Paris, had grown too fast and too compact to bury their dead within city limits. Churches began to profit by charging, and recharging, for burial sites used over and over again. Bodies were buried ever more shallowly and decomposition was lurching toward waterways, verging on a health crisis. Paris was the first to act, creating the ghoulish catacombs, underground tunnels of skulls and mass gravesites. A little too creepy for anyone wishing to visit family.
Then a new idea emerged.
In both Paris and London, large tracts of land were established outside the city limits – away from the trash in the streets, away from the crowds, away from precious waterways and expensive tracts of land – with the idea of establishing grand parks meant as much for the living as the dead, with gorgeously maintained grounds designed and landscaped by city architects and evermore fabulous sculptures commissioned by wealthy families spending fortunes to represent their social status in death as they had in life. London’s first parks were established by the government in 1832, leading to a series of cemeteries ringing the city over the course of the 1840s that would come to be known as the Magnificent Seven. Most famous, perhaps, is Highgate Cemetery, where you can find European luminaries such as Karl Marx and Charles Dickens. Pere Lachaise, Paris’s first cemetery established on the very outskirts of the city by Napoleon in 1804, claims Jim Morrison of the Doors. (Oh, and a few others like Honore de Balzac and Frederic Chopin.)
The parks would become outdoor museums of art, and the ever greater wealth led to ever greater structures – taking on the gothic architecture of marbled angels and busts of the once living, elaborately carved tombs and vast mausoleums, and small chapels rising up from broad carriage paths like town homes. These were no longer cemeteries; they were garden museums.
Word spread. As with everything cultural in the Nineteenth Century, America would eventually follow Europe. The Wiltbergers’ garden would be designed by God, though, not city architects. It was, in truth, a garden.
We walk among monuments, kicking about. Unlike the more historic sections of Bonaventure, there are no truly grand memorials. No sculptures as of yet. Certainly no mausoleums or small chapels. This is partly due to new regulations that have been implemented over the years, making maintenance of the cemetery easier. More so, it is due to our era’s less ostentatious view of death. Wives no longer wear black dresses for interminable lengths. Burial plots are no longer signatures of wealth and social status. Bonaventure’s art and lore remain, but its continued allure for new burials lies in its natural grace – the last and most beautiful remnant of the garden cemetery.
There, just beyond the tree line, sparkles the Wilmington River. It is a comfort to me. It is my childhood, my summers. It is a view from my dreams. How many hours had I spent on that river, fishing or crabbing with my grandfather? Crabbing was one of the most fascinating experiences of my youth. So many chances for the prey to escape, so many opportunities passed by. The boat would settle in a tidal creek during low tide while my grandfather pulled grayed chicken necks from a wet paper bag. He’d show us how to jam a hook through the meaty part of the neck and lower it with thick string it into the muddy water below. I could feel the weight of it somewhere below, beneath the water, like a yo-yo that had let out all of its string. The crabs would attack immediately, these crustaceans, these scavengers, eagerly willing to eat just about anything. They jerked and ripped with a trifling savagery, paying no attention that I was gradually pulling the line upward, forefinger to forefinger, holding my breath. I marveled at their stupidity, the way they just kept swimming up with the bait, greedily pursuing the meat at any cost, their ancient appetites overcoming the will to live. Just. One. More. Chunk. Of. Meat. I saw the vague outlines of their shells rising through the water getting clearer just beneath the surface, like a photograph coming into focus in the inky water of a darkroom. My grandfather scooped up the crabs – shocked, shocked, they were – in his net and dumped them into the cooler. I looked at my grandfather in wonder. They made frantic scratches against the cooler rushing frantically about the hard white interior, pincers snapping, defiant in an adrenalized frenzy of fight-or-flight. But it was too late for most. A few fought their way to freedom by clinging to the net with such ferocity that the claw would snap off, and they would scurry in a sideways shuffle, a slow-crab dash for water. Minutes later, we would capture them again. They were forever fighting, forever failing.
Catching crabs with individual lines, painstakingly luring up one or two at a time, isn’t the most efficient way to go crabbing, but that was never the point of summer – efficiency. The point was a hot boat under a magnificent sun with a cooler of cold Cokes and boiled peanuts.
James and Dena are standing in the shade. I’m temporarily lost to the sun and river and nostalgia. I shake of the past, and look to where they are taking refuge from the heat below thick, gnarly branches of three oaks intertwining. I join them beneath the arches and at the head of a plot, where our family monument could go. It faces that curve of blue water that is the Wilmington at high tide. It is a languid, inefficient summer view. It is my youth, this place marking my death. It’s perfect.
In the etching, a wooden bridge crosses a mild creek leading to a wooden gate. A woman in a long dress, her face indecipherable in the distance of the drawing, strolls lazily toward the bridge. It is cool and shaded, and the path is still dirt. It looks to be a place where you could easily nap with a blanket and a bottle of wine beneath the awning of trees. It is 1860, the etching part of a story in Harpers Weekly. The caption reads: “Entrance to Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia.” Another drawing shows a long-coated man and a hoop-skirted woman walking by a horse-drawn carriage down a broad avenue lined with trees. Bonaventure is still more park than cemetery, though an expansive mausoleum sits atop a ridge to the right of the couple and obelisks and other monuments rise from the ground in distracted patterns in the distance.
While the fame of Europe’s cemetery parks makes its way to America, news of Bonaventure travels back across the Atlantic. In an 1859 travel memoir, British author Charles Mackay writes that in neither the states nor the continent had a place been more naturally adapted as a garden park, the moss flowing from trees like “tattered banners hung from the roofs of Gothic cathedrals.”
By the end of the Nineteenth Century, thousands of visitors are lured to Bonaventure each year.
Ours is not a well-planned trip; in fact, it wasn’t planned at all. I was visiting my father in Savannah, scheduled to take the next day’s train back to my home in northern Virginia when I decided to call my wife and inform her that I was staying an extra day or two. I wanted to scout some potential burial sites, I said. For my burial, I clarified. This is not as easy a conversation as you might think. People in their thirties and forties do not usually speak of their own interments. In some quarters it is considered uncouth to speak of one’s dying altogether. The average forty-something is looking for that next opportunity to dominate the career ladder. He’s looking for the biggest flat-screen TV he can fit in his den. He’s looking (with no little trepidation here either) at the big trip to Disney World with the kids. He’s not looking for death – even when he knows it’s looking for him.
“I don’t think so,” Dena said flatly.
She didn’t think so, what?
“I don’t think you should do this alone,” she said.
I paused, momentarily stumped. Then relieved. I didn’t realize just how much trepidation had been quietly building somewhere deep inside me. This notion of plotting my own grave. This requirement that I admit I am dying. The confusion as to when I will die, and – in the meantime – how I will live.
Here is the problem of Stage IV cancer, what was once referred to as terminal. You must accept that you are dying, but you are given no timetable. You are left to contemplate, daily, your mortality – but life continues. Each night you lie awake, sometimes fearful; each morning you wake, grateful. Your reprieves come day by day with no guarantees. The cliché is that you must, then, live every day as if it were you last. But it’s not, not necessarily. If I knew it were my last – then, yes, I would throw all responsibility to the ground and gather my children in my arms. But I don’t know. When do you give up your job, your income, your security for your children and live every day as if it were your last? When do you quit life as if everything were normal and turn your attention to farewells? At what point do you go so far as to ask your wife to help pick the place where she will bury you?
The priest at my church asked me if I were given any “timeframes,” meaning a prognosis from my doctor. I looked away from him, searching carefully for an answer. The short answer was yes; my answer was no. I told him that I didn’t listen to prognoses. He told me the story of his mother being given six to eight months.
“That was more than three years ago,” he said. It was a familiar story. A doctor gives you a prediction on when you will die, and you live; a doctor gives you a prediction on when you will live, and you die.
Still, the doctors are more often right than wrong. The destructive march of tumors through the lungs – like Sherman laying waste to the South – cannot be denied. There is a difference between hopeful optimism and willful ignorance. Cancer has a way of turning on you with no notice. What Hemingway said of going broke could as easily be applied to dying of cancer: It happens gradually, then suddenly.
In 1867 the naturalist and essayist John Muir camped out for a week in Bonaventure, journaling about its landscape and wildlife. What he saw was the very soul of nature. But time passes. Dirt paths widen to engineered avenues. More and more elaborate sculptures appear. Monuments grow in grandeur. Crowds grow. Flipping through sepia-tinged photographs of the cemetery recording the passage of years, horses and carriages morph into Model-Ts. Oaks grow thicker, the branches dipping earthward like bridges from the sky, at times touching the earth, burrowing beneath it, resurfacing yards away. Time passes. New additions crawl outward from Tattnall’s center. Streets pave. A small city with skyscrapers emerges. Model-Ts morph into buses. Books are written, movies are made. Tourists tip martinis on Conrad Aiken’s graveside bench, toasting the Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown.
I turn back to look at Dena, and there she stands. I am grateful for her presence; I am grateful for her stubbornness, her insistence to come with me to this place. I am grateful for her – and the children she has given me. I am grateful for all of this love that surrounds me in the prime of my life. And, no, I am not ready to surrender these things. I’ve been asked if I’m angry about dying young. I don’t know what to say. Aren’t we all angry about dying? Don’t we all resent Adam, Eve and that damnable apple? Holding my wife’s hand, though, I am … for the moment … satisfied. We have found a home. It is the palace I requested, a garden palace of sunlight and shade, of foliaged roofs and cool waters. It is the home I’ve always dreamed of, a place of languid summers and salty breezes.
It is, at the age of 44, a strange and unnatural thing to mark your own grave. It is a strange and unnatural thing to know that it waits for you, as if it, too, has picked you. Strangest of all, though, is the sense of relief you feel in the choosing. Dena holds my hand. The sun fades and the shadows lengthen. James waits in his truck. The bureaucracy of death still awaits. There are papers to be signed, checks to be written. For now, though, for this moment, we are content in our garden. Everything else can wait.