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 New York Times
June 23, 1881
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


“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


“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

Cities of the Dead


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.

Routh Cemetery

North of where I live is a patch of thick creek-bottom woods known as the Spring Creek Nature Area. I’ve been going there for years – to walk around or ride my bike on the complex of paved trails that loop through the forest. It’s a nice spot… a place to forget that you are in the middle of a giant city.

The looping trails through the Spring Creek Natural Area converge on a little footbridge over the creek. There is a nice bench there – a good place to rest and get away from the city for a few minutes.

I had read rumors that there were a couple of old cemeteries within this woodland stretch. A little bit of web searching and careful observation of the Googlemap aerial view of the area and I was pretty sure I had spotted the locations. I am not obsessed – but I find old cemeteries to be interesting. They are the only remaining mark that a lot of the early settlers left on the land here.

I had stopped off at one in the middle of a Plano neighborhood a month or so ago and now I thought I’d take a look at the one in Spring Creek.

So the other day, once my bike ride had been cut short by an unexpected flat, I left my car at Renner and 75 and walked down to where I figured the graveyards might be. It was a hot day and walking was not easy, even though I had brought a bottle of cold water. The cemeteries are not in the Nature Area exactly, but on private property, but judging by the trails and dirt roads penetrating the scrub and trees, I was not the first to venture back there.

After a short hike I came across a small family plot, with a rusting iron inner fence and a new black wrought iron palisade around that. This was the burial place for the scion of the Routh family, Jacob Routh, his wife, Lodemia, and two unmarried daughters. The plot is overgrown with vegetation and I didn’t feel like climbing the fence, so I never was able to see the daughter’s tombstone. The Routh name is still heard all over the Metroplex, especially now that Routh street pierces right through the heart of the uptown entertainment district.

It’s a very peaceful spot, perched right above a steep, deep, dropoff of native limestone down to the creek below. I can picture it over a hundred years ago, part of a ranch made of rolling hills rising up from the creek bed. It’s where a pioneer would choose to spend the rest of eternity. Somehow, I don’t think they would mind the fact that the plot is being overgrown, slowly returning to the way it used to be.

Around to the side of the tombstones of the four family members are two small markers. I could barely see these through the underbrush – couldn’t make out the dates. One had three names, Sharon, Rinnet, and Theda. The other simply said “Fluffie.” These are obviously pet graves… horses and a dog, probably. In those times, a family’s animals would have been very important, worthy of a carved stone in the main cemetery plot.

Jacob Routh’s tombstone in the family plot deep in the woods at the Spring Creek Nature Area in Richardson, Texas.

Pet grave marker.

I couldn’t get a good shot without climbing the fence… but it says “Fluffie.”

I left the small cemetery and followed an old road down through a little creek and up a hill, almost emerging onto a new road that winds through the glass and granite high-rise office buildings of the Richardson Telecom Corridor. Shielded from civilization by a thick grove of trees is a larger cemetery, containing about a hundred or so graves. It was fenced – I did not enter even though there were some gaping holes in the wire. Near the locked gate was a couple of crumbling benches and an official historical marker.

It reads:

Marker Number: 14532

Marker Text:

Brothers Jacob, George Washington, Joseph and Thomas Jefferson Routh, and their sister Elizabeth Routh Thomas, were cousins of the Vance Family which held the original land grant that encompassed this site. Jacob Routh (1818-1879), a Baptist minister, acquired the 440-acre J. V. Vance survey in 1851, and brought his mother and other relatives from Tennessee to Texas. The Routh family were instrumental in the establishment of the community surrounding their land. Routh family members helped to organize a school, church, and store in addition to the family cemetery.

Early Collin County settlers Nancy De Lozier Beverly (1806-1851)and seven year old William Klepper, along with an unknown child whose parents were camping nearby at the time of his death, were already buried on this site when Jacob Routh set aside one acre as a family burial ground. Jacob’s mother, Elizabeth Mashman Routh (1788-1852), died soon after her arrival in Texas and was the first family member to be interred here.

Jacob Routh, his wife Lodemia Ann Campbell, and two unmarried daughters, Rose and Clara Routh, are buried several hundred yards north of the cemetery in a private plot. Of the approximately two hundred graves here, fewer than one hundred are marked. The last burial to occur here was that of Serefta Ellen Campbell Miller, who was born in 1836 and dies in 1922. The Routh cemetery continues to serve as a record of the pioneers of north Texas. (1998)

I walked around the fence and snapped a couple shots through the wire. Like the smaller plot this one was overgrown, with large mature trees grown up between the crumbling markers.

The sun was burning down and I had seen what I wanted and returned the way I came, taking time to explore a couple side trails that meandered through the woods down to the creek in a couple different spots. I hope that land doesn’t get developed any time soon, I’d like to see the the Spring Creek Nature Area expand… I’d like to see those cemeteries both protected and also, paradoxically, continue to return to the wild state they started from.