Let’s Talk with Tina Whittle

 

Cemeteries Rock

By Tina Whittle

I love strolling in old cemeteries. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone – I am, after all, a mystery writer, and I write a character who used to be a tour guide in Savannah graveyards – but my appreciation is occasionally met with a shudder from others.

Those are places of the dead, they say.

Well, yes . . . and no. Places of the dead certainly, but for the living without a doubt. Graveyards are the collective scrapbook of a community – a family, a church, a town – and Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery is an especially gorgeous and intricate one.

bench at Bonaventure

First a plantation, Bonaventure began welcoming the dead into its marshy arms in the early 1800s. Situated at the bend of the Wilmington River, Bonaventure blends the manmade and the natural in a shifting intermingle, as tidal as the waters that run along its Eastern borders. The landscape is mostly silent – bird calls, rustling leaves, a high soft breeze winding through the Spanish moss and live oak branches – but occasionally the whine of an outboard motor will piece the quiet. Or a tour bus will rumble through. Or even – because this is still a working cemetery – a line of cars with their headlights on, laying a loved one to rest, adding another soul and another story to the Bonaventure fold.

Bonaventure is most famous perhaps for the iconic Bird Girl statue, which after it graced the cover of John Beredt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became too valuable to rest unattended and which was spirited away to a downtown museum. But there are other famous grave sites, and art, still available for the viewing.

gracie watkins

There’s the resting place of Gracie Watson, marked with tenderly carved sculpture of the little girl who died at age seven. Her grave is protected by a wrought iron fence, saving the stone from the further erosion of human hands. Rain and the salt air have had their way, and so I imagine the features are not as sharply defined as they once were. I think it’s beautiful this way, worked upon by the slow hand of time, which is as tender and delicate as an artist’s touch.

There’s also the gravesite of Conrad Aiken, a one of the finest American poets and a lover of Savannah. His grave is a bench—the legend goes, he wanted to provide a place for visitors to stop, rest and have a martini with him – engraved with two telling phrases: “GIVE MY LOVE TO THE WORLD” and “COSMOS MARINER DESTINATION UNKNOWN.”

Bonaventure is – and perhaps this is why I love all cemeteries so – a place of stories. Some are long and raveling. Some read “The End” all too soon. Some are mysteries, marked only by a stone that says “Mother” or “Baby Boy.” But all invite us to participate in the telling. All ask us, the living, to continue the tale.

*If you’d like to see more of my photos from Bonaventure Cemetery, you can visit my Pinterest board).

Comments

  1. I can’t wait to go to New Orleans so I can visit their cemeteries.

  2. I love old cemeteries, too. I find them peaceful and sad all at the same time. Thank you for sharing, it’s lovely. Congratulations on joining the Booklover’s Bench.

  3. My husband checks out old cemeteries when we are on vacation. I always feel uncomfortable – like I might be stepping on someone. The older ones do seem to be placed in areas of calm and peacefulness.

    • tinawhittle says:

      I’ve always appreciated that calm and peace. They are one of the few still places in the world today, at least among humanly-constructed places.

  4. Lovely post!

  5. tinawhittle says:

    I did not even know there was a word for a person who loves cemeteries — taphophile. My friend the romance writer dibbed the name Octavian Augustus Godbold for her next work, or I’d have stolen that one right from the tombstone!

    I do find them very peaceful too, and profound on days like Memorial Day. They are as full of soul as any place I know.

    Thanks for reading, y’all. It’s nice to know I’m in good company here, among cemetery strollers and story-lovers.

  6. I like the cemeteries up north where you can read the standing historic headstones. Here in Florida the headstones lay flat and you have to hope the grass doesn’t cover them. Recently I saw a burial in a mausoleum for the first time. That experience is not for my bones!

  7. maggietoussaint says:

    It has long been a Southern tradition to visit cemeteries. Heck, I even know a lady who makes it her business to visit cemeteries everywhere she goes, and she makes rubbings of tombstones. I visit my relatives in our family cemetery which is located marshside. It is a sad occasion for me for the most part, even though I enjoy our one-sided conversation, having them there with me would be even better! I enjoyed your post, Tina.

  8. My husband loves checking out old cemeteries, more if there are some ancestors or other relatives buried there. I remember once when I was flying to visit my daughter in Champaign-Urbana and I flew into Indianapolis, where she picked me up. Hubster gave me a diagram of graves to check out in the Indianapolis cemetery before we hit the road. Another time, in central NY, he was out on a snowy, below-freezing day checking out the rural cemeteries for more relatives. I confess I stayed in the house with the dog and hot chocolate.

  9. I guess I’m strange but I’ve always enjoyed walking through the old cemeteries. Looking at the headstones and seeing how the living have honored or memorialized those that have gone before. From the very young to the very old, the sweet to the heroic to the less than beloved… their gravestones tell a tale. And as I move farther away from my ancestors roots, a visit to their final resting place gives me a connection to them and to the place they called home.
    My opinion of the current funeral system is less than kind and I have no desire to be placed in one of those flat, soulless places that pass for resting places for the dead these days.

  10. This definitely adds a different way of looking at cemeteries, Tina. Most cemeteries have a beautiful serenity to them and I was fortunate enough to have a friend send me pictures of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which I posted for Memorial Day. Those can be found at http://terryambrose.com/2015/05/national-memorial-cemetery-of-the-pacific/

  11. I wrote a story, one I have NOT published yet, about a taphophile (someone who likes cemeteries). I did graveyard walks myself during the research phase. It started out as a place to get character names (from the tombstones), although my main character had already told me she liked walking through cemeteries. Some of the symbolism and customs you see are fascinating. I’ll have to put Bonaventure on my list of places to visit.