In honor of Mardi Gras

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the DeadNew Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead by Florence Mason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jammed with photographs and packed with fascinating information, this coffee-table book takes a seldom-seen perspective on graveyards. It doesn’t in any sense skimp on the history of the New Orleans dead, nor does it neglect the craftsmanship of the city’s memorials — but looks instead into the relationships the living maintain with their predecessors.

The relationships between the living and cemeteries has long fascinated me. In Death’s Garden, I collected together essays on how the living visit, use, maintain or neglect, and generally interact with the dead in their communities. Florence here focuses on similar relationships with the graveyards in and around the city, stretching out to include the Fleming Cemetery of Bayou Barataria.

Florence’s subjects range from the Day of the Dead celebrations in Louisiana, to the traditions of decorating graves on birthdays and other occasions, as well as visiting one’s ancestors just to gossip or serenade. At first I felt the chapters highlighting the living decorators or musicians were perhaps too intimate, probing too close to the losses these subjects had suffered, but in retrospect, I think it’s good to focus on the survivors. Too often in my own work, I’ve focused on the tragedies suffered by the dead, who are clearly past feeling them.

Florence is wise, I think, to choose these examples and show how we all could benefit from growing closer to the dead in our communities. He quite rightly points out that without a connection — or a use — for the neighborhood graveyard, the memorials become neglected, vandalized, and before long, an important historical monument is forever lost. New Orleans has its Save Our Cemeteries organization, but most communities are not that lucky. I hope Florence inspires his readers to become involved in cemetery preservation, whatever their reasons.

Florence is the author of the City of the Dead booklet on St. Louis Cemetery #1 (which I’ll review soon). While that booklet is absolutely required for anyone interested in graveyards, New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead provides a valuable perspective that is too rarely found anywhere else. In addition, Mason Florence’s beautiful photographs—both in color and infrared—stand up against any others in your collection. Very recommended.

The book is available on Amazon: New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

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This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #4.