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New Orleans Cities of the Dead

photographs and text by
Deborah Cox

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As you walk the narrow thoroughfares of the City of the Dead, a still silence engulfs you. Voices are muted, even the wind whispers through the trees, rustling the leaves of ancient, gnarled oaks and magnolias. Now and then the voice of a crow or an irreverent mockingbird pierces the quiet, but there are places inside Lafayette Cemetery #1 where you can't even hear the passing traffic on Prytania Street.

The shadows on a late October afternoon act as a shield against the sun's heat, but it isn't long before the visitors remove their jackets and tie them around their waists. Normally the cemetery is closed on Sundays, but today is the last Sunday before All Saints Day (November 1), and the gates are open to allow visitors access to the tombs of loved ones. For it is now, as it has been for centuries, the custom in New Orleans once a year to clean and repair the graves of those who have passed before

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Every tomb tells its own story, even those whose voices have been silenced by neglect. There are the benevolent societies who offered burial places for those without families or those too poor to buy their own. There are families who have buried so many children in so short a time you can't help but wonder how they bore the grief - Little George, 2 days old - Our Annie, 1 year and 4 days old.... Some tombs contain as many as seven or eight infants, silent testament to the hardship of life in the city's own infancy.
Fence%20Row%20small.JPG (15925 bytes) First-time visitors to the cemeteries of New Orleans are almost always struck by the unusual yet picturesque aspects of these small cities. In old cemeteries, the dead are buried above ground in tombs resembling little windowless houses, built close together, row on row, giving the effect of a small city. The tombs are made of whitewashed brick and plastered, and their entrances are closed by marble tablets bearing the names of the residents.
 

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The cemeteries are surrounded by brick wall vaults that provide above-ground burial space at low cost. These vaults are also used as temporary burial sites for those who will eventually take up residence in the family or society tomb.

If you have ever seen ships passing far overhead along the Tchapatoulas Street docks (pronounced Chopatoolus), you can probably guess the reason for the seemingly odd practice of above ground burials. The first contributing factor is that a large part of the city is at or below sea level. Add to that an average yearly rainfall of 64 inches and, well, you get the picture. The first burials were below ground, and when the first heavy rains came, the caskets floated out of the graves and spilled their contents. Needless to say, the city fathers took action.

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But equally perplexing to the new traveler in New Orleans is the practice of placing so many bodies in the same tomb. The logistics are confusing until you know the secret of those tombs. The climate of New Orleans is sub-tropical. It experiences a freeze on an average of once every three years. Trees grow significantly faster than in more temperate climates, and flowers bloom nearly year-round. The heat and humidity combine to create a natural crematorium inside the vaults.

Most of the family tombs contain two vaults stacked on top of one another. When a family member dies, he is buried in the top vault in a casket. Then when necessary, the first arrival is moved down to the bottom vault to make room for the new arrival. When a third family member dies, one of two things happens. Caskets can't be opened for a year and a day, so if the third family member dies during that time, he is interred in one of the wall vaults until the time is right. After a year and a day, the first body has been reduced to ashes and the tomb can be opened. The ashes of the first dearly departed are moved to the caveau , a receptacle in the bottom of the tomb. The second body is moved to the bottom vault, and the new tenant takes his place in the top. In this way, several generations of a family can be buried in the same tomb.

The cemetery is a mirror of the city itself, Lafayette City as the Garden District was once called. As in the city itself, there are fences surrounding some of the structures. The iron work that is so much a part of the living city's character is much in evidence in the cities of the dead. Most of the tombs have drainage gutters, just like the homes of the living. The narrow streets of the city itself are crowded with Victorian houses, some glowing from care, others sagging under the weight of scaffolding as workmen labor to restore some glimmer of past glory. Still others lie in ruin and decay, the result of years and years of neglect. So it is in the City of the Dead. Amidst the gleaming marble and plaster monuments are weathered, forgotten ruins so neglected the names on the marble tablets are no longer legible - or the tablets are gone altogether.

 

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Considering their age, the cemeteries of New Orleans are in remarkably good condition - and in some ways the same can be said for the city of New Orleans itself. But the neglect in the cemeteries is serious enough to merit our attention before we lose these historic treasures. As with the city itself, or any present-day American city, the decay in the cemeteries drives people away. With less revenue, the city of New Orleans decays further and more people move to the newer, cleaner, safer surrounding areas. The same can be said of the cemeteries of New Orleans. Decay, though atmospheric and beautiful in its own fashion, keeps new residents from moving into the City of the Dead which means less revenue which means more decay. It is a seemingly endless cycle.

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And while there are many movements afoot right now in New Orleans to save the city and to save the cemeteries, the only way to truly save a city, whether it is a city of the living or a city of the dead, is through use. People have to be enticed back or the cycle will never end.

 

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Sources:

Florence, Robert City of the Dead Lafayette, LA The Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1996

Wilson, Samuel, Jr., F.A.I.A. and Leonard V. Huber The St. Louis Cemeteries of New Orleans, New Orleans, LA, St. Louis Cathedral 1995

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This page last updated 05/30/00.
Site owned, designed and maintained
by Deborah Cox