Elysium: A Gathering of Souls: New Orleans Cemeteries by Sandra Russell Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Andrei Codrescu’s foreword (“A Trumpet in Heaven”) begins by meditating on cemeteries as a final address, where the dead are always available for consultation. He takes his morning coffee in the graveyard near his New Orleans home, a habit he began in his hometown in Transylvania. “Tombstones are essential tools of poetry,” he says, and the New Orleans tombs are among the most poetic he has ever visited.
Patricia Brady’s introduction, with the catchy title “The Seductive Face of Death,” follows. While she doesn’t discuss seduction, she does lay out a history of burial in New Orleans. It’s a subject that I thought I had a fairly good grasp on, but she raised new points. The original Louisiana society did not discriminate in death. In St. Louis #1, there was no separate “colored section.” Once the U.S. took possession of the city, however, the American racial prejudices changed the disposition of the dead. Also, she said the French had no cult of the dead. Hearkening back to the medieval practice of mass graves and reusing family graves, Louisiana had a law that a grave could not be opened for a year and a day, during which time decomposition was supposed to have taken place. The old bones were shoved back into a central well inside the tomb when the new occupant was placed inside. This changed when the Northerners imposed their sentimental Protestant views about resurrection of the body.
The bulk of the book is given over to Sandra Russell Clark’s photographs. From the fallen and blackened cherub that fronts Codrescu’s foreword to the tilted and rusting iron crosses, from the flowers wilting in the bright late afternoon sun to the fallen memorial plaques amidst the lush foliage, Clark captures the glorious tropical decay of the New Orleans’ cities of the dead. Her luminous black and white photographs seem almost antique at first glance, light-struck and over-exposed. Instead, the process fills the photos with a sense of heat and humidity so vivid you can almost smell the crepe myrtle and the heavy sweet smell of decay. Of all the cemetery books I own, this rivals only John Gay’s Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla (the first book review on this site!) in beauty. Perhaps that is because neither of them is afraid to climb high or crawl low to find the most aesthetic angle, rather than relying as David Robinson’s Saving Graces does, on purely documentary photography.
Best of all, the book closes with thumbnail sketches of each graveyard, including not only address but safety advisories as well. Elysium: A Gathering of Souls is perhaps the quintessential New Orleans souvenir—and guidebook.
This review comes from Morbid Curiosity #3.
Copies of Elysium can be had from Amazon: Elysium: A Gathering of Souls : New Orleans Cemeteries
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