Cemetery of the Week #16: Metairie Cemetery

Brunswig tomb in Metairie Cemetery

Metairie Cemetery
5100 Pontchartrain Blvd.
New Orleans, Louisiana 70124
Telephone: (504) 486-6331
Founded: 1872
Size: 150 acres
Number of interments: More than 4500, according to Findagrave.
Open: 7:30 am to 5:30 pm daily

New Orleans’s Metairie Cemetery opened in 1872 on the grounds of the old Metairie Race Course. Popular legend holds that the old Creole aristocracy had barred the graveyard’s owner, Charles T. Howard, because he was a crass American who’d made his fortune in the corrupt Louisiana State Lottery Company. At his first opportunity, Howard bought the land, closed the track, and charged the Creoles money to be buried there. New Orleanians love a good story. Even though this one is not historically accurate, the oval shape of the track still dominates the modern cemetery. Exquisite mausoleums line its concentric lanes.

Old postcards show the grand entrance to the cemetery as an ivy-swathed archway. Unfortunately, the archway was demolished when Louisiana chopped the Pontchartrain Expressway through the Metairie District. The former grand entrance now serves as the back exit.

Right near the highway rises the 30-foot-high tumulus of the Louisiana Division of the Army of Tennessee. The tumulus, a man-made hill, is perhaps the most ancient form of grave monument. This burial mound belonged to a “Benevolent Society” that provided burial space to veterans of the Civil War. Inside the grass-blanketed tumulus lay 48 crypts full of old soldiers, including Confederate General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, who ordered the first shot fired on Fort Sumter and later commanded the Army of Tennessee. When the last Civil War veteran was buried in 1929, the tomb finally knew peace.

The most famous person ever buried in Metairie Cemetery was Jefferson Davis, sole president of the Confederate States of America. He died in New Orleans in 1889 and was laid — temporarily — to rest beneath the 38-foot granite column marking the tomb of the Army of Northern Virginia. Davis’s funeral was the largest New Orleans has yet seen. Even so, Louisiana could not hold him. Several years after his death, Davis’s widow Varina allowed his remains to be removed to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. The Army of Northern Virginia’s column in Metairie remains dedicated to Davis’s memory, since the bronze letters that recorded his name and dates discolored the marble before they were pried off.

My favorite monument in Metairie Cemetery — as hard as it is to choose a single favorite — belonged to the Egan family. They had it designed to look like a ruin. Its Gothic marble archway yawns open to the sky, just like the chapel that inspired it on the Egan property in Ireland. New marble blocks were distressed to appear cracked and broken. Even the family’s nameplate looked as if it had been dropped. I love the intentional devastation.

Another candidate for my favorite was the jaw-dropping Brunswig tomb. The granite pyramid rises taller than it is wide, stabbing its point into the November sky. The German family name beneath the Egyptian solar disk amused me. A maiden in Greek drapery and elaborate curls raises her hand to knock on the tomb’s door. Behind her stands a tall Roman urn with ornate handles and a marble eternal flame frozen in its mouth. Across the entryway crouches a sphinx whose broad shoulders dwarf her impassive face. Going Out in Style, which discusses the “architecture of eternity,” attributes the inspiration for the tomb to one that stands in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan, Italy. I like the juxtaposition of the German drug magnate retiring into eternity with a Greek maiden inside an Egyptian Revival tomb decorated with a Roman urn beneath the humid Louisiana sky.

An astounding grave, inspired by one in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy, remembers Eugene Lacosst, a successful Bourbon Street hairdresser who made his fortune in the stock market. His rococo sarcophagus stands inside a blinding marble archway with a half-dome like a band shell. Lacosst is buried alongside his mother.

Behind that stands a row of mausoleums with angels surmounting their roofs. I particularly love the pair of marble angels atop the Aldige monument. Mrs. Jules Aldige, her daughter, and granddaughter drowned in 1898 when the steamship Bourgoyne sank. Atop their cenotaph, two angels stood inside the prow of a boat. One angel clasps her arms around her companion, either clinging to her or holding her back. The other angel has thrown her arm over her head in distress as she lifts off. Of all the angels I’ve ever photographed, these were the most dramatic.

A final note: since it occupies low ground close to Lake Pontchartrain, the Metairie District was completely inundated after Hurricane Katrina. The photographs of mausoleums barely cresting the water broke my heart. I haven’t had the opportunity to return to New Orleans since then, so I can’t report how well everything has been restored. The disaster just underlines the fragility of these old cemeteries, full of one-of-a-kind artwork.

Useful Links:

Lonely Planet rates Metairie Cemetery #1 of all the things to do in New Orleans. Map to the cemetery

Origins of Metairie Cemetery

Civil War history in Metairie Cemetery

Flooding in Metairie Cemetery after Hurricane Katrina

GPS information from CemeteryRegistry.us

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Metairie Cemetery:

Metairie Cemetery: An Historic Memoir 

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity

Elysium: A Gathering of Souls

New Orleans Architecture vol. 3: the Cemeteries

Consecrated Ground: Funerary Art of New Orleans


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