The One With the Cemeteries

When I was in New Orleans, I couldn’t help myself. As I passed the gates of St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, the tombs shaped like tiny houses invited me in. Like a friendly suburban neighborhood, they stood shoulder to shoulder in front of small sidewalks. The sidewalks lined paved streets. Some of the tombs had fresh flowers on the stoop. There were apartment-style tombs for those who couldn’t afford the stand-alone model, and there were large tombs for guild or league members like firemen and masons. It was a small city. A city for the dead.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 3

This cemetery was established in 1854 and was well tended. Most of the marble tombs gleamed white. There were no weeds and hardly any broken tablets. As I wandered up and down the lanes, I scanned the names and ages of death. Life was so much shorter back then.

Some tombs had ten or twelve names engraved on the tablet. How did all of those bodies fit inside? They can’t dig crypts below the tombs—the water table is too high. A guide told me this: A simple coffin is put in the tomb, which is then sealed with a closure tablet for a minimum of “one year and one day,” according to tradition. At the time of the next burial, the first body is removed from its coffin and placed in the rear or bottom of the tomb. The coffin of the next deceased is added and the first body can return to the earth. This process allows more people to be buried in a smaller area.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Twelve bodies are buried in this tomb dating from 1870 to 2014.

What happens if two people in the family die within the “one year and one day” period? Unfortunately this was common during epidemics like the yellow fever outbreaks that regularly swept through the city. (In 1853 nearly 8,000 New Orleanians lost their lives that year alone.)  In these cases the newly deceased would be laid to rest in a vault until the mourning period had ended and the person could be interred into the family tomb. These wall vaults were also used for poor families that couldn’t afford a larger tomb.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 3

Vaults for the poor or those waiting to be moved into the family tomb. These tablets are written in French. 

Some of the wealthier family tombs were made of marble with elaborate details, but most were constructed from inexpensive plastered brick.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 3

A quick hop on the streetcar and I was at the Lafayette Cemetery No 1. Established in 1833, it is the oldest of the city-operated cemeteries.  It is located in the Garden District, one of the wealthiest areas in New Orleans, but this cemetery was filled to capacity within decades of its opening—before the surrounding neighborhood reached its greatest affluence. More than 7,000 people are interred in this one city block.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

This cemetery had much more of a “spooky” vibe than the St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. Maybe it was because the day had turned rainy and gray, or because the weeds were overgrown, or because the plaster was caked with grime. Whatever the reason, I knew I didn’t want to be here after dark.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

This cemetery’s most famous residents are of the blood-sucking kind. Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat. among others, “lived” here, and Anne Rice herself lived around the corner. But I was far more interested in the everyday people, the ones who are all but forgotten to history, except for these markers that said they were here and that they “went about doing good.”

Part of the epitaph below reads: Dr. George S. Brown aged 76 years, died 1943 — “He went about doing good.” His son Grayson Hewitt Brown, aged nearly 20 years, died in WWI –“Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Dr. George S. Brown aged 76 years — “He went about doing good.” His son Grayson Hewitt Brown, aged nearly 20 years, died in WWI –“Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

If you’re planning a trip to New Orleans, check out Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit group working to restore these historic cemeteries. They also offer tours.

Have you toured a cemetery? Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Advertisements

26 comments

  1. Hi Jackie. Great post. I love cemeteries too. They are a page from history. The details you “uncovered” about burials (?!?) make history “come alive” (?!?) 🙂 Thanks for the intriguing info!–Patti

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Sweetly melancholy post, Jackie, and a good reminder we aren’t ‘here’ forever. Especially that final mention, of the boy of nineteen who died during WWI – way too young to die, and that way, too. Cemeteries are fascinating and beautiful – I actually prefer those that are a bit over-grown and slightly neglected; probably because they’re older, but there’s just something about being reminded of the constant stream of life and death; all that history, as Patti points out. I wonder what happened to all these tombs when the floods came? Any evidence of that? I imagine after the waters receded residents (the living ones, haha) simply went in and began putting things to right.

    Like

    1. The writer in me is completely fascinated by the imagined stories of the people buried here. What was life like for them? How were the people related? Did they like each other? In the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, the deceased are largely of German and Irish stock — some of the first waves of (willing) immigrants to the city.

      The Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is in the Garden District and so wasn’t flooded in the aftermath of Katrina. The St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 is in a neighborhood that took about 6-8′ of water. The guide told us that the cemetery itself fared well, considering the devastation in the surrounding area.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Anne Rice cemetery is definitely spooky!
    The only cemetery I’ve “toured” is Père Lachaise in Paris where Proust, Molière, Chopin, Oscar Wilde and others are buried. The mausoleums are works of art, truly. Can’t believe I didn’t take a single photo, but my friends were in a big hurry as this wasn’t our destination. We just kind of happened on it.

    Like

  4. I want to see the second one. I thought it would look even spookier. I think The Père Lachaise might be darker somehow.
    I have a lits of cemetries to see. Highgate in London and the one in Milan is very famous because of the marble statues. I just realize I’ve visited quite a few. It seems a special interest of mine. 🙂

    Like

  5. This is fascinating. I knew about the above-ground burials in New Orleans but didn’t know that multiple corpses were placed in each tomb.

    Like

    1. I couldn’t help but wonder how the people interred in the same tomb were related. Sometimes the names were very different so there was no way to trace the progression. So interesting!

      Like

  6. Interesting, Jackie. I like that people have a place to visit their loved ones when they are gone. The Hindu culture believes in cremations exclusively so there isn’t an appointed place that we can visit. I love how you bring such different perspectives in your posts.

    Like

    1. What really fascinated me was how the people interred in the same tomb were related. Sometimes the names were very different so there was no way to easily trace the progression. How did they all end up here? So interesting!

      Like

  7. This is so fascinating Jackie. I went to New Orleans many years ago, but only looked at the cemeteries from outside the gates. We didn’t have time to take a tour. But I do like walking in old cemeteries and used to do it often at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. There are so many stories there, not to mention a plethora of name ideas for stories.

    Like

What's on your mind?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s