Digging Into Cemetery Symbolism at Beautiful Bonaventure

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After visiting Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking of another old cemetery: Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah, Georgia. Many heard of this cemetery after the enormous success of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I visited Bonaventure Cemetery on a trip to Savannah a few years ago and it taught me a lot about how Victorians saw death.

Bonaventure Cemetery was established in 1846 as a private cemetery and became a public one in 1907 when the city of Savannah purchased it. The bird girl statue pictured on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is no longer located there, but there are many other statues that make the cemetery seem like an outdoor museum. It is a place of beauty both because of the man-made statues and natural large oak trees, tropical plants and Spanish moss.

Hanging Out at the Cemetery

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Outline of flower bed.

In touring the cemetery, it is helpful to understand how Victorians viewed the cemetery. In Victorian culture, the cemetery was more like a park and families would promenade in their finest on the way to their family plot where they would picnic. At the time, death was a routine occurrence, often even young children and mothers giving birth would pass away, so spending time at the cemetery was a way to spend time with both the living and the dead.

As cemeteries became a place to hang out, the grave markers became more beautiful, replacing the symbols that had previously adorned gravestones that were meant to scare people into living a good life. The beautiful images and statues that reminded the living that their loved ones were in a better place. Families would plant flowers to enhance their own familial plot.

Statues That Resemble the Dead

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Gracie Watkins.

There were many statues in Bonaventure designed in the likeness of the individual buried beneath the ground. In Victorian culture, it was a way to memorialize the loved one and feel close to them when you returned to the cemetery.

One of the most famous is that of Gracie Watkins, a 6-year-old girl whose death left her parents heartbroken. The monument includes a tree cut in half, which symbolizes a life cut short, and ivy climbing toward heaven. Her eyes look upward toward heaven, which reminds the mourner to forget the worries of the current world.

The grave of Corrinne Elliott Lawton is another beautiful and heartbreaking statue. She died while she was engaged after an illness and the likeness shows her sitting draped in a loose dress that hangs off her shoulders, a wreath of flowers has fallen out of her hands, and she is wearing shoes. Her eyes are sad and blank.

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Corrinne Elliot Lawton

There are many stories about Lawton and the symbolism of the statue. Some say that she had fallen in love with a man her family didn’t approve of and that she threw herself into the river because I forbid her to marry. Many say she away from the rest of the family plot for that reason.

Bare feet on statues mean that the person is walking with Jesus, so the shoes on Corrinne’s feet seem to say she is not walking with Jesus. A large Jesus statue stands behind her and she sits with her back to him, which also indicates that she is not on her way to him.

But no matter what the symbolism says, documents such as her mother’s journals have proven that the stories of her throwing herself to her death are a lie. You can read more about Corrine on Atlas Obscura.

There were many of these marble likenesses throughout the cemetery and it along with a slightly overcast day and the Spanish moss, made the atmosphere a little eerie. The statues were beautiful, but I wondered what it would be like to have my likeness living on without me in a place like this.

I’ve included some more pictures below from Bonaventure Cemetery.

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Lawton family plot.
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More pictures available in the original post, published at https://catherinelanser.com on May 23, 2019.

Narrative nonfiction and memoir. Querying my memoir about my family, told through the lens of brain tumor and father’s stroke. www.catherinelanser.com

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