Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday Visual Inspiration: Last stop, the graveyard

I know, I know, eventually I'll run out of pictures from my New Orleans trip. Here's the last round, I promise.

For whatever reason, I love graveyards. I find them absolutely fascinating--the space we humans give over to the dead, the way locate it either close to or far away from where we live, the way we care for it or neglect intrigues me. I've found that the disposal of a body is for hygienic purposes--we must eliminate risk of contamination or spread of a disease. One way to prevent that contamination is to bury the body, to cover it in dirt away from our homes and cities and potable waterways. But the burial process, the ceremonies, and the enclosures of these mortal coils left behind are interesting in that they reflect culture, geography, and spirituality. most of all, we have to remember that burial is for the dead, but graveyards are for the living. With that in mind, Guy and I visited the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest and coolest cemetery in New Orleans (and the only one that's ever been used in a movie: Easy Rider).

New Orleans' soil is sandy and constantly sinking and moving and boiling around. Its earliest Western inhabitants were Catholic, who believed in burying folks underground--none of this cremation nonsense. Unfortunately, some of those early burials didn't take--one good rain and Oncle Francois le mort was slooshing down the street or nearest waterway, as if Death could not stop him from enjoying a Slip N' Slide one more time. Hence, the good Catholics of Nouvelle Orleans began entombing their dead in marble vaults. Your family gets a vault in the cemetery and takes care of it in perpetuity. A body has to stay in a vault for one year and one day--not just a traditional time of mourning, but also it seals up The Funk through a summer. The stone and brick vaults in NOLA's cemeteries reach temperatures of about 400 degrees inside in the summer, which literally bakes a body "clean", killing all potentially-dangerous microbes inside. Once the year-and-day has passed, you can scootch the previously-departed's bones down to the back end of the vault and pop in a newly-deceased loved one. But remember what I said about the ground sinking? Look at the bottom of the vaults in the above photo. That bottom vault was usable in 1930, but it's now sunk to the point you can't get into it.

The resting place of Marie Laveau, the "high priestess of voodoo" in New Orleans. Volumes have been written about Laveau, but the verifiable facts about her can fit in a small pamphlet. Some recent historians believe that her psychic powers can really be attributed to her day job: hairdresser. Back in the day, she visited all the fine ladies' houses and did their hair, and the hair of their friends, while all the ladies sat around and gossiped and talked. By the end of each week, she knew everybody's business. So when she received her clients seeking psychic help, she was easily and reliably able to say, "oh, a close business associate will betray you in a month" because she'd just heard that associate's wife talking about some new deal her husband had going on. The three X's on her tomb (which is actually another family's tomb who supposedly asked that Marie be buried with them) are of varying provenance. Some say that it's the sign of Father-Son-Holy Ghost, some say it's a means of calling upon a voodoo saint that would interpret between the worlds of the living and the dead, and some say a cantankerous caretaker marked her grave with three X's so everyone would leave him alone and not ask him where she was buried.

Put enough bodies in a vault, and you'll run out of room on the marble name slab in front. When it's full, you put the front on the side of the vault and get a new slab. On this tomb, the front slab got full and broke as well. The name at the bottom was of one sister in a family who despised her other sister. The other sister died second, so the full name slab got moved to the side of the tomb with the first sister's name at the bottom, while the despised other sister got a brand new slab with her name at the top on the front of the tomb. Their cat fights must be otherworldly.

Alas, we have to have us some architecture. Both the Neoclassical Revival architect Benjamin Latrobe and his son died of the yellow fever in NOLA, three years apart to the day. They were buried in the small Protestant section of the cemetery, but no one knows where. This marker was mounted on the wall. (Funny, races are buried in amongst each other in this cemetery, but not religions. Homer Plessy, the black man who took his Jim Crow law complaint to the Supreme Court in the 1898 case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, is buried amongst the whites because he was Catholic.)

And finally, a lovely tomb was built for all the Italian immigrants in the Italian League here in NOLA. Many nationalities had Leagues in NOLA--they would help you find a place to live and a job, learn the languages (English and French/Creole), and generally get around and live. The Italian League hired a NeoClassical Revival architect to come from Italy and design and build the League's tomb, into which members could be buried and their tombs cared for in perpetuity. The Italian architect hated NOLA--hated the weather, the people, the smell, the everything. When the tomb was finally finished, he attended the ribbon cutting...and died of a heart attack two hours later. He was the first person to be buried in the Italian League's tomb--the very thing he designed in the town he hated.

Death's a bitch, ain't it?


Miss Kitty said...

Awesome pictures and stories! Do you have any more Nawlins graveyard pix to show us?

Wilderness Gina said...

Poor schmuck. But really, Italy is in the south isn't it? Confusing and crowded and dirty and stuff? What's the problem?