Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cities of the Dead

Contrary to many misconceptions, much of New Orleans' history remains intact, despite the devastation wrought by Katrina. Many of the famous above-ground cemeteries, for instance, are in reasonably good shape, including St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, which we visited on a tour arranged by Tulane. (I've just been visiting cemetery websites and learned that under no circumstance should anyone consider a solo visit to a New Orleans cemetery. Good thing I didn't let my natural affinity for cemeteries worldwide lure me back for a private walk. I had no plans to move in permanently.)

The cemeteries are above-ground for a couple of reasons. The more dramatically appealing has to do with New Orleans' location below sea level, which means that coffins buried underground have a tendency to pop back up during a flood or hurricane. A less dramatic but more likely reason is that above-ground burial was common in France and Spain, the two countries from which many of New Orleans' European residents arrived pre-1800.

For whatever reason, above-ground burial is emminently practical in New Orleans. Although numbers of names frequently appear on the tombs , they usually represent more former than present occupants. There are, after all, only two slots in most of the tombs, each of them usually owned by the same family for decades. The recently departed are buried in wooden coffins, and the intense Louisiana heat causes body and encasement to disintegrate rather quickly, enabling them to be swept into an opening in the floor of the tomb. Cremation in lieu of burial was not permitted by the Catholic church until recently, but "natural" cremation was acceptable.
You can see in the bottom photograph that the tombs are constructed simply, with only one layer of bricks needing to be removed in order to brush away a former occupant in order to install a new set of remains. (The photograph above that portrays the tomb of a Carmelite house of nuns -- many names but few spaces.)
New Orleans law still requires that a body remain in his or her original space for a year and a day -- a carryover from the years of yellow fever epidemics, when people did not know the origins of the disease and feared that the fumes from a decomposing body might be contagious if a tomb were opened too soon.
The tombs are more or less elaborate depending upon the income and status of the owner-families. The walls of the cemeteries contain the budget-rate vaults; the families with wealth produce elbaorate carving and statuary. The cemeteries are immensely interesting, with their lengthy litanies of French names and their village-like quality -- but apparently an official cemetery tour is the only safe way to go.


Carol said...

Thanks for the lesson. I knew the reasoning behind the above ground burials but didn't realize that the bodies decompose so quickly and then are brushed into the ground: ashes to ashes, dust to dust in the truest sense. Sadly, all of the information you read about safety in the cemeteries has been true for quite a while. Not sure if after Katrina crime is still such a problem. My understanding is that it is not.

Anonymous said...

robin: come visit to brooklyn and you can do an amazing guided tour of greenwood cemetary. bernstein, ...a whole bunch of other famous folks. bean

Tess said...

The cemeteries at the foot of Canal St. are usually considered safe to do a solo. These are usually referred to as the Metairie Cemeteries.
Most of the safety issues were in St. Louis #1 and St. Joseph. Both locations are adjacent to housing projects. Right now the criminal population is low and so is crime. Because of the high walls that you mentioned and the architecture of the tombs, visibility in the cemeteries is limited and easily can make you prey if solo. Your attention is focused on what you are doing.
Another factor on safety is that the cemeteries are not as heavily visited by the family members. less people around the more the danger.
This past All Saints and All Souls Days were sad. These two days are big events in our culture and the cemeteries and memorials suffered this past year. Some made the trip but most could not come to pay their respects and do their yearly pilgrimages.
Wonderful post and images!

Globetrotter said...

I do love New Orleans and my heart is heavy every time I think about what it must be like now.

I am so happy to hear that your daughter is excited at Tulane. It is just what the city needs outpouring of enthusiasm by young vibrant people who hold an interest for the city within their hearts.

I just read about a doctor from New Orleans that committed suicide recently. With his home gone and patients gone, he didn't have the heart to start over. So sad. So many sad stories.

It is the positive stories that we need to keep hearing in order for new people to come and old inhabitants to go back and re-build.

Please keep sharing.


jtuwliens said...

Yes, cemeteries in New Orleans are similar to the ones I toured in Europe (Switzerland and northern Italy to be specific). Such an interesting history. Wonderful photographs.

ChasingMoksha said...

When I was a little girl I used to see a cemetery in Galveston Texas that looks a lot like the second picture.

Why is a solo unsafe?

Lisa :-] said...

How obnoxious that miscreants would waylay victims in cemeteries. I would hate to be them when their own souls knock at the door of the afterlife....

V said...

Reminds me of "Easy Rider" !!

Theresa Williams said...

I really love these photographs. Very nice.

Kathryn said...

Fascinating. My mom did the family geneaology while I was growing up. I developed a strong affinity for and interest in cemetaries.

betty said...

so very interesting; I would have thought a cemetery was a safe place to visit alone; thanks for enlightening me about that