I have always loved cemeteries. The church I attended when I was young had a sprawling one that ran from the back steps all the way to the edge of the woods. I’d play there every Sunday afternoon with the other kids, racing each other and eating dessert beside our favorite graves (mine belonged to my great-great-grandmother Shiloh—it was in the shade of a massive cedar tree and had faded pink plastic roses in a vase at the foot of the marble gravestone).
As a grown-up, I have since toured many historic burial grounds. I learned the Victorian symbolism of the ornate carvings at Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, with the downtown skyline at the horizon. In New Orleans, I visited Marie Laveau’s resting place. One winter afternoon, I knelt among the stone markers of the slave cemetery at Barnsley Gardens, a small burial plot in the shadow of the ruined manor home that their hands had built stone by stone two centuries ago.
But my favorite cemeteries are the ones in Savannah, Georgia. Here the air is tangy with salt and dense with humidity, and the etched gravestones weather in the shadows of live oaks draped with Spanish moss. The most famous of the Lowcountry cemeteries is Bonaventure, brought into the international spotlight by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It is my favorite too, but not because of its famous residents or infamous goings-on. I love Bonaventure because it nestles in the bend of the Wilmington River, participating in the tidal risings and ebbings of the saltwater marsh. There are benches scattered throughout where one can sit a spell, watch ospreys fish and herons beat their long lovely wings against the breeze.
Cemeteries keep stories alive, and in doing so, keep the memories of our loved ones burnished bright. As a collector of stories, I appreciate this about these resting places, and it’s one of the reasons I opened my novella “Trouble Like a Freight Train Coming” at Bonaventure. It’s the prequel to my Tai Randolph series, and as such, gave me a chance to take Tai back in time to when she was a tour guide. Like me, Tai loves stories.
Here’s the opening scene of that novella, available now in Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas (which you can find here) and which also includes a story by our very own James M. Jackson, “Low Tide at Tybee,” and two other stories set along the coastal Southeast.
I brushed aside a tendril of Spanish moss and positioned myself next to the grave. My tour group gathered in a semi-circle around me, fanning away with their Bonaventure souvenir programs. Thanks to a tropical depression loitering inland, Savannah was experiencing an unseasonably warm November, the hottest I could remember in my quarter century upon the earth. A stray breeze from the river curled around my neck, and I lifted my ponytail to let it lick my sweat-dampened skin."Here in Savannah," I said, "every step you take, you take with the dead beneath your feet. This is a city literally built on human remains, thousands of years' worth. It goes back to the first prehistoric inhabitants of the land, the Yamasee and Timucua. Back to the Yamacraw, the first people to welcome James Olgethorpe, who then began layering English dead on top of the indigenous dead. Some have been moved to graveyards and cemeteries, but some still lie deep in the earth, layers of history, layers of stories.""Like a lasagna," one of the men at the back said.I forced a smile. There was always one in every group."Most people aren't aware of this," I said. "They get distracted by the cobblestones and carriage rides, the green beer and fried shrimp. The surface. But in Bonaventure, you can't deny it. In Bonaventure, the dead are literally right beside you.”
I enjoyed visiting Bonaventure on the page for this story, but nothing compares to walking those white-pebbled lanes in person. I have learned that a person who is interested in cemeteries and their accoutrements—funeral practices, gravestone art, epitaphs—is called a taphophile. My protagonist and I certainly qualify.
How about you? Would you consider yourself a taphophile?