Let’s Talk of Graves, of Worms, and Epitaphs

“Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills”
― William Shakespeare, Richard II

We lost about half the ride at Lee Harvey's - but here's the rest at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. (click for a larger, better version on Flickr)

We lost about half the ride at Lee Harvey’s – but here’s the rest at the Santa Fe Trestle Trail.
(click for a larger, better version on Flickr)

A week ago I went along on an organized bike ride that, in the spirit of upcoming Halloween, explored three of Dallas’ historical cemeteries. I left the house and rode to the DART station, taking the train downtown. This was the last week of the giant State Fair of Texas and the trains were packed with last-minute fairgoers, but I made it without any problem. I rode from the West End Station down to the Continental Bridge Park and met up with about twenty folks there.

We rode down into the Trinity River Bottoms and followed the new paved bike trail and some gravel roads to the Santa Fe Trestle Trail. Then we headed up Corinth and into South Dallas. Working our way through the neighborhoods we arrived at our first stop, Oakland Cemetery.

This was a very peaceful and interesting place. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in the city and is full of locally famous folks – the names on the tombstones are reflected in many familiar street names. One feature is that when they constructed the cemetery they left the native trees – making it one of the few first-growth forest spots in the city. There are a number of unique sub-species of trees found only there.

We rode around without stopping – I plan on going back soon for some photography there.

Leaving Oakland Cemetery we went a few blocks up a side street and stopped at an ordinary small rental property. It was the house where Ray Charles lived for a few years in the 1950s – while he was making some of his most famous music. I had no idea there was any connection between Ray Charles and the city of Dallas – the house is not marked or preserved in any way. The local blues scene was influential on his musical growth and style at the time. He was traveling a lot – but became a regular performer at local clubs like Woodman Hall and the Arandas Club.

Ray Charles' rental home. Dallas, Texas

Ray Charles’ rental home.
Dallas, Texas

We rode back on side streets into The Cedars where we stopped for lunch and a beer at Lee Harvey’s – which appeared as we turned the corner like an oasis in the desert.

The day was getting long and I thought about heading home, but I was convinced to ride back across the river to another historical cemetery, Oak Cliff Cemetery. It was another interesting and beautiful spot – but the sun was starting to set so we headed off to our last destination, Western Heights Cemetery.

I was getting tired and started to fall behind the main group. A strong cyclist stayed back with me and we became separated from everybody else. It was dark when we made it to Western Heights. We waited for a bit – but the others never made it.

Historical Marker at Western Heights Cemetery Dallas, Texas

Historical Marker at Western Heights Cemetery
Dallas, Texas

The most famous person buried in Western Heights is Clyde Barrow. A few years back I visited Bonnie Parker’s grave, north of Love Field. Her family insisted on her being buried far away from her infamous partner – there has been some interest in having them moved together over the years, but nothing has come of it.

Bonnie Parker's Gravesite

Bonnie Parker’s Gravesite

We clambered over the fence to take a look at the grave of Clyde and his brother Buck.

Grave of Clyde Barrow and his brother, Buck.

Grave of Clyde Barrow and his brother, Buck.

It was getting late and I was a long way from home, so I took off, riding back to the Trinity River, over the Continental Bridge and catching a train at the American Airlines Center back to Richardson. We had ridden a little over thirty miles, which is a long way in the city, especially for me. There is nothing better than a fun and exhausting day.

Marie Laveau – The Voodoo Queen

“There is darkness inside all of us, though mine is more dangerous than most. Still, we all have it—that part of our soul that is irreparably damaged by the very trials and tribulations of life. We are what we are because of it, or perhaps in spite of it. Some use it as a shield to hide behind, others as an excuse to do unconscionable things. But, truly, the darkness is simply a piece of the whole, neither good nor evil unless you make it so. It took a witch, a war, and a voodoo queen to teach me that.”
― Jenna Maclaine, Bound By Sin

I have been working my way back through some older(er) photographs I have stashed away, intending to process and write something about eventually.

I’m a little disappointed because we had to cancel a vacation trip to New Orleans this October (we simply don’t have the money). I’ve been to the Big Easy many times – for work, for vacation, and because my son goes to college there. Of course, Mardi Gras is something for everyone’s bucket list, but otherwise, I think that Halloween is the best time to visit New Orleans. It’s a party, it’s pretty crazy, but you don’t have the logistical nightmare that Mardi Gras brings.

Last October we went for Tulane’s parent’s weekend and I’ve put up some blog entries from that trip.

In particular, I wrote about a tour we took of one of New Orlean’s famous cemeteries, St. Louis #1.
In that blog entry, however, I skipped the most interesting tomb in the place, that of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau.

Saint Louis Cemeter #1, New Orleans

Saint Louis Cemeter #1, New Orleans

Marie Laveau's Tomb, the XXX marks are for people that want their wishes granted.

Marie Laveau’s Tomb, the XXX marks are for people that want their wishes granted.

From the plaque attached to her tomb:

This Greek revival tomb is reputed burial ground of notorious “Voodoo Queen” . A mystic cult, Voodooism, of African Origin, was brought to this city from Santo Domingo and flourished in 19th century. Marie Laveau was the most widely known of many practitioners of the cult.

I had heard of Marie Laveau, of course – the first time probably from the the old Redbone song, “Witch Queen of New Orleans” – but didn’t know of any details.

Back in Texas, I checked a book out from the library and found the whole story, the real story to be more complicated than the legend.

First, there were two women we now know as Marie Laveau – mother and daughter. The legends of each are mixed up with the other. New Orleans at that time was a dangerous, tough place to live, especially for a woman of mixed race. The book I read portrayed Marie Laveau as a beautiful, brilliant, ruthless woman that would do what it took to live and prosper in the swirl of difficult times. She cultivated her legend and used it to her advantage – both to rise as a leader in her own culture and as a path to reach, frighten, and dominate the upper crust of New Orleans Society.

She was a well-known hairdresser to all the wealthiest women in the city – and from that vantage point learned everybody’s secrets… and was not afraid to use that to her advantage.

Over the years, her story has grown… but even in the day it was something. From her Obituary in the 1881 New York Times (Read the whole thing):

THE DEAD VOODOO QUEEN

The New York Times
June 23, 1881
MARIE LAVEAU’S PLACE IN THE HISTORY OF NEW ORLEANS
The early life of the beautiful young Creole – the prominent men who sought her advice and society – her charitable work – how she became an object of mystery.
New-Orleans, Jun 21 – Marie Laveau, the “Queen of the Voudous” died last Wednesday at the advanced age of 98 years. To the superstitious Creoles Marie appeared as a dealer in the black arts and a person to be dreaded and avoided. Strange stories were told of the rites performed by the sect of which Marie was the acknowledged sovereign. Many old residents asserted that on St. John’s night, the 24th of June, the Voudou clan had been seen in deserted places joining in wild, weird dances, all the participants in which were perfectly nude. The Voudous were thought to be invested with supernatural powers, and men sought them to find means to be rid of their enemies, while others asked for love powders to instill affection into the bosoms of their unwilling or unsuspecting sweethearts. Whether there ever was any such sect, and whether Marie was ever its Queen, her life was one to render such a belief possible. Besides knowing the secret healing qualities of the various herbs that grow in abundance in the woods and fields, she was endowed with more than the usual share of common sense, and her advice was oft-times really valuable and her penetration remarkable. Adding to these qualities the gift of great beauty, no wonder that she possessed a large influence in her youth and attracted the attention of Louisiana’s greatest men and most distinguished visitors. She was the creature of that peculiar state of society in which there was no marrying or giving in marriage; yet they were not like the angels in heaven.
……
Marie Laveau, one of the most wonderful women who ever lived, passed peaceably away. Her daughter Mme. Philomel Legendre, the only survivor of all Capt. Glapion’s children, who possessed many of the characteristics of her mother, Mme. Legendre two pretty daughters, ministered to the old lady’s last wants. She died without a struggle, with a smile lighting up her shriveled features. She was interred in her family tomb, by the side of Capt. Glapion. In the old St. Louis Cemetery, and with her is buried the most thrilling portion of the unwritten records of Louisiana. Although Marie Laveau’s history has been very much sought after, it has never been published. Cable has endeavored to portray her in the character of Palmyre in his novel of the “Grandissimes.” The secrets of her life, however, could only be obtained from the old lady herself, but she would never tell the smallest part of what she knew, and now her lips are closed forever and, as she could neither read nor write, not a scrap is left to chronicle the events of her exciting life.

We were seeing her (purported) tomb on the day after Halloween, and it was obvious there had been many visitors the day before. Not only was the crypt freshly festooned with a thick collection of triple XXXs (if you scratch three Xs into the stone, your wish will be granted) but there was a healthy pile of offerings to the Voodoo Queen piled up at the foot of the crypt. Empty liquor bottles, Mardi Gras Beads, money, hotel key cards, cigarettes, candles, plastic skulls, flowers, apples, golf balls, lipsticks, travel sized shampoo, partially unwrapped (but unbit) candy bars… on and on.

It was such a motley assortment – I can only guess at the desperate desires of some of the people that left the stuff behind – what is it that they need? Or want?

I hope that the Voodoo Queen’s spirit has enough Mojo left to help at least some of them… at least a little bit.

Halloween Offerings at Marie Laveau's tomb. New Orleans.

Halloween Offerings at Marie Laveau’s tomb. New Orleans.
(click to enlarge)

Halloween Offerings at Marie Laveau's tomb. New Orleans.

Halloween Offerings at Marie Laveau’s tomb. New Orleans.

Marie Laveau's Tomb

Marie Laveau’s Tomb

Offerings to Marie Laveau

Offerings to Marie Laveau

“The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan

Ferns

“We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography – to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.”
― Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

Lafayette Cemetery #1, New Orleans, Louisiana

fern

“The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.”
― Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

Lizard of Death

I am the lizard king. I can do anything.
—- Jim Morrison

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans

“At noon in the desert a panting lizard
waited for history, its elbows tense,
watching the curve of a particular road
as if something might happen.”
—-William Stafford