Kenny Klein with Stapler

Kenny Klein with Stapler

Monday, December 12, 2011

New Orleans cemeteries: what your tour guide didn't tell you

Along with such institutions as Jazz, muffulettas, nutria, drunken vomiting and football fanaticism, New Orleans is known for its cemeteries. Ornate and Gothic, these resting places are unique among American cemeteries in their attraction of tourists and locals. I cannot think of any other American city where a cemetery is typically on a tour guide's agenda.

Our cemeteries are architectural and artistic marvels. NOLA corpses are usually entombed above ground rather than below, so they don't rise up and float away in floods. The work of the city's finest builders and sculptors make up our boneyards. Sadly, even above ground interment in splendid tombs doesn't always help the dead stay put, and in some of our cemeteries the deceased are nearly as present as the living, physically as well as spiritually.

The cemeteries most visitors to the city take the time to see are the very famous Saint Louis Cemeteries #1 and #2 (photo right). These are close to the French Quarter, and are some of the city's oldest. There are well known graves there: Marie Laveau, Jean LaFitte and other infamous and notable past New Orleaneans are interred in these locations. Their graves are a favorite destination of tour guides, mule carriage drivers and Goth chicks.

But most visitors never see the less than perfect cemeteries, or for that matter, the lovely ones that are a bit farther off the beaten track. I happened to acquire a new (to me) digital camera a few weeks ago, and decided to take it for a spin around some of the most obscure New Orleans cemeteries. I thought I'd share my little photographic tour with you, starting with the cemetery closest to my house, the Carrollton Cemetery.

Located in the neighborhood of Carrollton, at Green and Adams Streets, this graveyard was established in 1849. Unlike many of our other graveyards, it is a segregated cemetery: ornate, statuesque tombs comprise a Whites only section, while the Blacks or “Colored” section is made up of in-ground graves. Some of these in-ground graves are marked with wooden, hand painted markers, and because of flooding (especially after Katrina), many of the bodies are coming unearthed. Bones can be found lying on the ground throughout the cemetery. While that sounds pretty creepy, many things in this city are pretty creepy (that's why I love it here), and I find the cemetery has a very serene, ghoulish charm.

While some of the graves here are well kept, others are not. In this photo you can see that trees are growing out of some of the graves.

At right is a tomb whose front panel is fully open. I glanced inside and could not see remains... but it's still pretty eerie!

Even in the Whites section, you can see that graves are in disrepair; the earth is uneven, and gives the effect that the corpse has tried to crawl out. Still, like many NOLA cemeteries, this one is beautiful and the statuary is amazing.

Across Mid-City, at Esplanade and Bayou Saint John, is Saint Louis #3, another very beautiful cemetery with somber, splendid statuary. The cemetery was built on the site of an old leper colony, when graves were desperately needed after the yellow fever epidemic of 1853. This cemetery now houses some of New Orleans' most affluent dead. The New Orleans Dante Masonic Lodge has a tomb there, as does the Hellenic Orthodox community. The tombs are beautifully kept, and ordered in very neat, formal rows, different than many of our chaotically laid-out boneyards downtown.

The city's Catholic nuns are interred here as well, in a wall-style tomb.

Wall style tombs are something I'd never really seen before coming to NOLA. They are just what they sound like: the walls around the cemetery not only keep the dead inside, but in a case of form meeting function, are built wide enough to house the dead as well. Corpses are essentially stacked inside like cordwood, five or six high. A little flower receptacle is often affixed at each marker.

On to Holt Cemetery, or, now for something really depressing...

A mile or so down from Saint Louis #3 is Holt Cemetery. Set in a lot behind City Park and Delgado University, Holt is a potter's field, the final resting place of the poor and indigent. There are no tombs, and all graves are in-ground.

Photographing there was more depressing than I'd imagined it would be. No one has cared for this place in a long time. Most of the dead lie unremembered. Many were veterans of the two World Wars. Most were Black.

Many of the markers are hand written, and as you may imagine, many are broken or in serious disrepair. Some graves hold eight or ten bodies. Others seem to have been dug up and re-used several times. At right is a grave marker that names at least ten people. The grave is small even for one.

Here a tree seems to have grown through a grave marker. It may simply have grown in the grave, and have been cleverly decorated.

Here is something I'd never seen before: a crematorium furnace standing right amongst the graves at Holt. Apparently those too destitute to afford a monument of any kind would simply be cremated on-site. The door of the furnace stood slightly ajar. Parts of the machine perhaps used in cremations lay on the ground around the appliance.

Back to the pretty stuff....

Masonic Cemeteries #1 and #2 stand, ironically, just a few yards away from Holt. These are just as you would expect cemeteries built by Masons to be; all the tombs lined up perfectly and built square and even. There were a few notable statues and markers, though most were like any other nicely kept cemetery in the city, except for their Masonic symbols.

An engraved scroll of Masonic luminaries greets visitors to the Masonic cemetery.

Cemetery thoughts: NOLA is a city of paradoxes. Rich and poor, Black and White, subculture and status quo coexist here with apparent ease. The cemeteries are right in keeping with that blend of things that do not at first glance seem blend-able. Terrifying and beautiful, overwhelming and serene, fixed in time and yet right at the center of traffic and chaos, our cemeteries are one of the many elements that define the deep complexities of New Orleans life. And death.

I'll leave you with some of the amazing statues found in the city's other cemeteries.

From the New Orleans cemeteries, this is Kenny Klein, explaining it all.

All photos by Kenny Klein