Cities of the Dead

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New Orleans Cemetery – Saint Louis #1

On our last trip to the Big Easy, we signed up for a New Orleans Cemetery tour from Tulane University.

The Cemeteries of New Orleans are famous – when you visit you notice them right away on your drive away from the airport. Because of the high water table, burial in the city is above ground in crypts. If you tried to stick a coffin underground it would come bobbing up in the first hurricane and go hurtling down the street.

The dense clusters of stone crypts packed into rows give the cemeteries of New Orleans the nickname, “cities of the dead.”

All the parents piled in to the bus on the Tulane campus for the trip to St. Louis Cemetery #1. The woman sitting next to us spent her time making desperate phone calls. She was from Rockaway in New York and her house had been destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. She had decided to go ahead and make the planned trip to visit her daughter at school so she could use the Internet to register for assistance while her husband remained behind trying to salvage what he could. There was a lot of irony in a parent from New York coming to see her daughter in New Orleans as a refugee from a devastating hurricane.

The tour was very interesting – mostly because of our tour guide. A spry elderly New Orleans native of French extraction – thick with that amazing melodious Cajun accent – she spoke a lot of the unique way of looking at life (and death) necessary for survival in a place as inhospitable to polite civilization as New Orleans. She spoke of the constant friction between the attitude of the New Orleans natives and the Americans… spoken as if they were aliens from another planet.

She said she didn’t understand the Americans, even though she was glad she was married to one, because, “Darling, somebody has to do the work.” She said, not long after she was married, her husband had to go in to the office on a Saturday,

“Honey, where’re you goin’,” she asked.

“I’m going to work.”

“What do you mean? It’s Saturday. Nobody works on a Saturday!”

The concept was completely incomprehensible to her.

Then she went on to describe the details of a New Orleans internment. She said, “Ah never though this was unusual. I thought everybody did it like this. When I went to another city I was stunned. Ah said ‘You did a hole? And drop a body down there? And cover it up?’ Ah couldn’t believe it.”

You see, I always knew about the above ground crypts in New Orleans, but I never understood the process. You see, these are family crypts – or in some cases, organizational crypts. They are built in two parts, an upper chamber and a lower one. A small opening at the back of the crypt connects the two.

When you die, there is no embalming… and no fancy metal or lined casket – just a pine box. They open the crypt and you go in the top chamber. There you wait, for at least a year and a day, until the next person expires. Then they open up the tomb, secure in the knowledge that the tropical heat and humidity have done their work, and there isn’t much left of you. Any surviving pieces of casket are removed and everything else is pushed back through the opening where it falls into the lower chamber, leaving room for the next occupant.

This is repeated as long as necessary. Some of the tombs had dozens of names on them, spanning well over a century.

Some of the details are fascinating. The walls of the cemetery are lined with small “wall tombs.” These are for when, as our guide said, “Somebody dies too soon, before the year and a day. They get stuck in the wall tomb until they can get moved back into the family crypt.”

Our tour guide in front of a typical New Orleans burial crypt.

Our tour guide in front of a typical New Orleans burial crypt.

A street in the City of the Dead. Family crypts on the left, wall crypts on the right.

A street in the City of the Dead. Family crypts on the left, wall crypts on the right.

Older crypts, getting run down.

Older crypts, getting run down.

Wall crypts. Space is at a premium. Look at the tiny spaces at ground level.

Wall crypts. Space is at a premium. Look at the tiny spaces at ground level.

Layton family crypt.

Layton family crypt. Over a century of family members.

Our guide said she was waiting for tomb space to open up and had saved money to buy in. “Space is limited, and in death like in life, it’s location, location location. I don’t want to go to my rest outside the city, I want a tomb in New Orleans.”

When a family dies out, nobody is left to take care of their crypt and it can collapse. Our guide said she had her eye on this spot in case it came up for sale.

When a family dies out, nobody is left to take care of their crypt and it can collapse. Our guide said she had her eye on this spot in case it came up for sale.

8 responses to “Cities of the Dead

    • Yes, I’ve read that the New Orleans burial traditions stem greatly from a “Latin” European Catholic influence – mostly French. It feels more like a European city in many ways than the Southern United States.

  1. Pingback: Marie Laveau – The Voodoo Queen | Bill Chance

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