Sunday, July 4, 2010

Land of the Dead


We know New Orleans for its life: Mardi Gras, music, and food.
We know New Orleans for its undead: voodoo magic, vampires, and ghosts.
But New Orleans is also a land of the dead.

Home to 42 cemeteries, New Orleans makes a great tourist destination for the ghoul in us. Many of these graveyards are located in the heart of the city, including the French Quarter and Uptown. Myself a personal fan of graveyards, I made a Saturday out of exploring just three of these block long spaces of history. As if traveling through portals into different centuries I saw and learned about so many of the different characters of the past who comprise New Orleans' rich history and tradition. An excursion not to be missed by anyone interested in time travel.

Because the New Orleans is quite low in elevation, underground burials were frequently thwarted by the land's proximity to the water table. Airtight coffins would often rise from the ground, particularly after a storm or a flood. Various techniques were employed, including weighting the coffins with bricks, or boring holes through the exterior. But eventually, the city adopted the Spanish tradition of above-ground crypts, serving multiple members of the same family.

These tombs were and are frequently constructed in part of brick. When a family member passes on, bricks in the entry spot of the tomb are removed and a body is interred. The bricks are reset with mortar. The scorching Louisiana heat combined with the brick structure of the tomb act like an oven, cremating the remains. Upon the death of another family member, the bricks are removed, and the next body is interred on top of the remains of the predecessors. And so on and so forth.

This tradition continues today. A local ordinance allows for the remains of multiple individuals to rest in the same vault, so long as the individuals died not less than two years of each other. If that time restriction cannot be met, then the remains of the prior decedent are stored in a bag in a holding cell until the ordinance is satisfied, and then placed back in the vault. What results are small but efficient graveyards. For example, St. Louis no. 1 takes up merely one city block, but houses 100,000 dead. These graveyards resemble towns, and appropriately are dubbed "Cities of the Dead."


St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Part of a group of three, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the French Quarter is the
oldest cemetery in the city dating back to 1789. Like the live residents of the streets of New Orleans, dead people also maintain a sense of aesthetics, as exemplified by St. Louis No. 1. Tombs here are made of marble engraved with fancy fonts, adorned with statues or elaborate metal work. Some even have decorative wrought iron gates and knockers for each body space. In St. Louis No. 1 I met sugar plantation owners, soldiers from 1812, legendary jazz families, and the notorious Madame Laveau, voodoo queen to some, philanthropist to others. Her crypt conspicuously bears the unconventional markings and gifts of her followers.

St. Louis Cemeteries No. 2 and 3
After a walk through Iberville, a low-income public housing project, I leave the French Quarter and enter the neighborhood called Treme. Claude Treme, a hat-maker and real estate developer from Burgundy, France, owned a large chunk of the neighborhood which bears his name. A white man, Treme sold much of his property to black people at least 50 years before the Civil War, and lived in this area himself.

He and other figures who played a role in the black community in New Orleans are buried in cemeteries 2 and 3, including the Sisters of the Holy Family, who served the poor black community of New Orleans. By the placards on the tomb itself, I counted many dozens of nuns interred that single crypt.

Also in no. 3 is "Chef's Corner," housing a number of famed restauranteur families, including the Prudhomme dynasty.

Currently, there is a waiting list to get into No. 3. I can't resist saying it: people are dying to get in.

As with many aspects of its cultural heritage, New Orleans residents have organized to preserve this after-life tradition. Though the graveyards are owned by the Roman Catholic Church, the institution itself only provides maintenance for the burials of those who pay for perpetual care. There are no cameras or efforts to curb looting. However, a non-profit group called Save Our Cemeteries offers tours, and a portion of proceeds are set aside for restoration.

Efforts by Save Our Cemeteries and other groups have been at least somewhat successful in maintaining these relics of tradition throughout modernity. All three, but especially the later two cemeteries are located within the modern landscape, sitting under a major highway and next to industrial warehouses. A panoramic perspective of No. 2 and 3 reveal a tombstone landscape juxtaposed against the cityscape of the skyscrapers of the Central Business District.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are a must-see, not only for the ghouls at heart but also for those intrigued by history and storytelling. The gates close on the early side (3pm) so make sure you get in and out before they do...unless you wish to rest with the dead!

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