Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cemetery Tour

This is the cover of a book I found in a gift shop in New Orleans:

While we were in New Orleans, I dragged Matt on a cemetery tour. It was really fascinating. I learned so much about the history of New Orleans as well as everything you ever wanted to know about how they bury their dead in New Orleans.
Tour guides will differ in their opinions about in ground v. above ground burial. Some say they bury above ground because New Orleans is at sea level and it was hard to keep the coffins from popping up and floating away during the rainy season. Others maintain that 30% of the Netherlands is at or below sea level and they bury their dead in the ground. It's mostly about space. The above ground mausoleums are natural crematoriums that can be reused over and over. Therefor it's the original recycling program.
Cemeteries in New Orleans (there are 3 main ones that I know of) date back to the early 1800s. Each mausoleum or tomb is purchased by a family. Each time a family member dies, the marble front is removed (it's held on by screws) and the brick and mortar wall is broken. They slide the casket in onto a shelf, reseal the brick wall and replace the marble cover. The tomb should be left sealed for a minimum of one year and one day. This is too ensure that the remains are adequately decomposed. If the tomb is in good repair and has no leaks, it can get up to 200 degrees inside on warm days, creating a natural crematorium.
When the next family member dies, the tomb is reopened, the remains are bagged and tagged, sent for DNA confirmation and then swept to the back of the tomb where there is an opening into the "cellar" or caveau along with all the other deceased family members. After a year in the heat the remains are just ashes and skeletal remains. You can imagine how many family members can be buried in this type of tomb (maybe as many as 200?). If a family member dies within a year of the last burial, there are "rental" tombs you can use in the meantime. Imagine having all your relatives buried in one place. What a great way to track your family's DNA and history.
Cemeteries in New Orleans are still being used today. The tombs vary from one another just like the people of New Orleans, from old to new, simple to ornate. Some have all the family members buried there engraved on the marble cover. Some have sculptures on top or beside them. Cherubs and lambs symbolize innocence, perhaps a child or infant is buried there. An urn represents mourning. An urn with a drape represents deep mourning. Besides family tombs, there are group tombs such as veterans of a particular war, fire fighters, and even one for orphans.
Some tombs have fallen into a state of disrepair. Moisture is the worst enemy of the mausoleum. Some have been restored or renovated. Renovation is when a group of workers come in, re-plaster and repaint the whole thing to look brand spanking new. It's inexpensive and quick. But if the wrong materials are used, it doesn't breath and the whole recycling thing doesn't work very well. Restoration is more time consuming, laborious and costly, but it maintains the integrity of the original tomb.
Now you know almost everything I know about how they bury the dead in New Orleans. Matt and I have always thought traditional cemeteries are a waste of space, as are golf courses. He doesn't like golf because of the whole exclusive aspect. I realize that many golf courses are more inclusive now of the average person. My objections are the waste of water and heavy use of pesticides (how do you think they keep the grass so nice and green and free of weeds, IN THE MIDDLE OF A DESERT?) Matt thinks cemeteries should be combined with golf courses.
I kind of like the idea of my whole family all being buried in one place, instead of scattered all over kingdom come. But Matt reminded me the recycling program would never work in Alaska. We are missing the key ingredient: heat. In fact, when our folks die in the middle of winter, we have to wait until spring to bury them! And well, we have plenty of space. He also wondered if I would be buried in the Manalisay tomb or the Wise tomb. I guess this is where it's advantageous to marry a first cousin. Did I just say that?
Up next, the Garden District, where we'll learn more about history, architecture and even some first cousins that were married! I love this place.

A typical family tomb.
An old tomb in need of repair beside a newly renovated one.

Here is the oldest grave in Saint Louis cemetery #1. It's an in-ground burial.

Angel sculpture.

My favorite little cherub, no bigger than a foot long.
More trivia: Ever since the acid trip of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, the Archdiocese of St. Louis no longer allows filming in St. Louis Cemetery. Newer films such as Interview with the Vampire are filmed at the Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District. My photos are from both cemeteries.

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