Death’s Garden: The Original Catacomb

St. Sebastian 300 dpi001On our last morning in Rome, Mason and I wandered around the Piazza Venezia, trying to find the Archaeobus that would take us out to the Appian Way. I was sick with a cold I’d picked up in the Vatican (go figure) and we’d had no time for breakfast. As we rushed down the stairs near Trajan’s column, I missed a step. When I painfully straightened my legs, I discovered I’d skinned both knees. Miraculously, the fall hadn’t torn my slacks. I limped to the bus stop and was swept off on our adventure.

The ancient Christian catacombs hadn’t initially been on my “must-see in Rome” list. However, the more I read, the more it seemed I should overcome my skepticism. A lot of history had been buried in the old tunnels.

Beyond the third mile marker, the Archaeobus dropped us off near the Catacombe di San Sebastiano. A mob already loitered in the plaza. Mason and I hurried into the cloister on the right side of the small yellow basilica to be near the entrance when the catacomb reopened after lunch.

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Entry ticket for St. Sebastian’s catacombs

We bought our tickets at a window barred like an old train station. The lobby occupied a long low room full of fragments of marble and terracotta, many clamped tightly to the brown walls. Each item had a relief on it: a bird, a fish, a lamb symbols of Christianity to people who couldn’t read.

These shards of ransacked tombs saddened me. The bodies have been removed from their rest, whether portioned out by the Church or otherwise disrupted. For me, the grave is not the person, but I feel that the spirit of the person enlivens the grave. A vacant tomb has lost something that a rock never owned. Whoever they were to those who loved them, these people have been swallowed by time.

A German-speaking guide summoned a small group of tourists to follow him down the steps, leaving Mason and me in the chilly gallery of shattered tombs. A busload of chattering American tourists filed in behind us. Mason wondered if we should follow the Germans, even without understanding the guide, just so we’d be able to see everything below our feet without the mob.

An English-speaking guide appeared. A cheerful Turkish woman, Maria spoke with a mélange of British and Middle Eastern inflections. She glowed with inspiration. She had clearly been “called” to talk about the catacombs, her faith strengthened by the history of the martyrs below our feet. I was relieved that she felt no need to testify. Instead, she assumed we were all Christians, that we began with the same point of view.

Maria led us partially down the steps so that she could count the group. Thirty-seven of us would muddle through the tunnels together. Some were frail old people: ladies as fragile as birds, an elderly gentleman who leaned heavily on his middle-aged daughter. At the risk of gross generalization, many of the others appeared to be teachers on spring break. Other than a knot of African American women in bright flowered dresses, ninety-five percent of the group was white. Mason and I embodied the low edge of the age curve.

Our guide promised that there would be no ghosts in the tunnels. There were no longer any bodies, either. Most had been removed in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the catacombs suffered at the mercy of barbarian hordes who couldn’t breach the walls of Rome.

Maria ran through some figures for us: thousands of graves in four levels comprised the seven miles of Saint Sebastian’s catacombs. The tour passed through only a fraction of the second level. The other levels were unlocked only to archaeologists blessed by the Pontificia Commissione di Archaeologia Sacra, a bureau of the Vatican.

Sebastian interior001The steps reached a landing, then turned to continue downward. We had to take care not to jostle each other on the stairs. I had visions of some lady breaking her hip. Before long, the group reached a level and surged forward. The air, already cold and still, lost another couple of degrees.

Yellow globes, hung at intervals near the tunnel’s ceiling, did little to brighten the gloom. Other tunnels, also lighted, branched off at right angles. They tempted me, but I dreaded getting lost.

Our guide directed our attention overhead with the beam of her flashlight. A pickaxe had scarred the ceiling. “They excavated the catacomb by hand,” Maria explained. “The ground here is called tufa, a lava rock that is easy to dig. Fossores, special miners in service to the early church, planned the excavations and did the digging. They carried the earth away in baskets.”

She turned our attention to the walls of the tunnel. It looked as if bunks had been carved into the stone, irregular indentations that appeared comfy enough to crawl into. The bed of each cubbyhole lay reasonably flat. The shallow niches spanned just large enough to tuck a body inside.

Maria said, “The dead would be wound in a sheet and placed here, without a coffin, then a slab of marble if they were wealthy or terracotta would seal them inside. You may wonder how they reached the graves at the top.” She swept her flashlight beam upward. “They filled the graves on top first, then dug the floor down below them.” In the tunnel where we stood, the floor had been lowered five times.

She gestured to another hole. Carved between columns of larger holes, this one spanned only as long as my arm and barely deep enough for a bed pillow. “You’ll see a lot of graves for children,” she warned. “Infant mortality was high.”

Maria set off at a pretty good pace into the maze of tunnels. We used Mason’s flashlight to peer into graves as we passed. Each featureless hole had been stripped of mementos.

We walked by low arched compartments that began level with the tunnel floor and reached hip-high. Eventually we passed one with its sarcophagus still in place. Did you know that the word sarcophagus means flesh-eating stone? The original Greek sarcophagi were so named because the kind of limestone used speeded up dissolution of the corpse within.

That’s the sort of thing I knew going into the tour. I’m sure we could have had more lecture if there hadn’t been approximately forty of us in the group. Few areas were large enough that such a large group could coalesce. The guide spoke only when all of us could hear, which I don’t dispute, but I’m sure we passed treasures she never mentioned.

In some places, the tunnel expanded into small rooms with low, vaulted ceilings. The configuration made me think of a snake who’d swallowed an egg. Those rooms had once entombed families. We jammed into one, mostly dark as a cave. I huddled into the hollow where a shadowy altar stood, more concerned about cobwebs than ghosts. Then again, what would spiders eat so far underground?

I tried to conjure a sense of what the place must have been like when bodies filled it. There was, of course, no embalming in the Roman world of the second and third centuries. When people died, their survivors had to cart them out of Rome, since the Law of the Twelve Tables forbade burial inside the city walls. Most Romans would not have owned a horse or an ox, especially not Christians, who tended to come from the lower and slave classes. I suspect that transportation of a cadaver presented a pressing concern in the Roman summer.

So here we have a cool though unrefrigerated compound of seven miles of unembalmed corpses. I envisioned early Christians negotiating the tunnels by the flickering light of clay oil lamps, through air clouded with myrrh and the inescapable, cloying sweetness of rot.

The pagan majority of Romans disposed of their dead by cremation. They burned corpses on a pyre, then collected the ashes into an urn. These urns of ashes were placed in tombs that lined the Appian Way, the road to Ostia through the Porta San Paolo, and all the other old roads leading out of Rome.

Jews practiced inhumation burial in earth in observation of Genesis 3:19: “Earth you are and to Earth you shall return.” We hear it most commonly as “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” from the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer. Early Christians pursued this custom, burying their dead because Christ had been placed whole in his tomb. Like Christ, early Christians anticipated bodily resurrection.

So this was a vast maze of rotting bodies where the souls were believed to linger, awaiting resurrection. Some of these dead did not go gently to their graves but had been martyred, dying for their faith. How could there not be ghosts?

Romans called a collection of graves a necropolis: a city of the dead. Christians, many of whom spoke Greek rather than Latin, referred to their burial places as coemeteria, equivalent to dormitories. The root of dormitory means to sleep. Christians believed that their dead were merely resting (ideally in peace) until Christ came again and ushered them into heaven. This is why we refer to a graveyard as a cemetery.

Maria led us into a room unlike any we’d visited. Marble sheathed its floor. Its walls were whitewashed. In contrast to the rest of the catacomb, this room was brightly lit. It seemed spacious until the tour group spread out into it.

On my left stood a simple stone table, draped with a spotless white cloth edged in lace. Across from that, on a pedestal, balanced a polished marble bust of a man in pain or ecstasy. The bust was so wonderfully crafted that my fingertips tingled, wanting to touch that emotion.

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Prayer card for St. Sebastian

Maria said, “Sebastian was a Roman soldier who decided he could no longer persecute Christians. The other soldiers tied him to a tree and shot him with their arrows. They left him to die, but he recovered from his wounds and started to preach. They captured him a second time and killed him. Christians buried his body beneath this altar. This has always been known. This room has always been a place of worship. When Constantine converted to Christianity in 312, he had a church built above the catacombs and Saint Sebastian’s bones moved into the basilica, directly over our heads.”

A friend of mine (who hadn’t grown up Catholic) believed Sebastian to be the most homoerotic saint. Bound mostly naked to his tree, his soldier’s body straining against the ropes, mouth open in passion: Sebastian’s image has inspired artists for centuries. Bernini, the architect who decorated St. Peter’s Basilica, had carved the bust before us. I wondered that such a rare and valuable piece of art remained out where people might touch it.

The tour group flowed into a room with a low, arched ceiling. Glass encased its carefully lighted far wall. “This is another holy place,” Maria said reverently. “For a while, the Saints Peter and Paul were buried here.”

That seemed unlikely to me. St. Peter’s Basilica, at the heart of Vatican City, claims to have Peter’s body in its crypt. The legend is that Peter was crucified upside down by Nero and buried nearby in the pagan necropolis on Vatican Hill. I’m not clear why the early Christians would have moved his body to this catacomb so far from Rome, then moved it back (where they promptly lost it) until the excavations to build the current St. Peter’s in the sixteenth century. It’s not impossible, but it’s a lot of lugging for his bones to end up buried back where they began.

Paul also was supposed to have been brought from the site of his martyrdom and buried in this room, only to be transported back to the Via Ostiense where Emperor Constantine later built a basilica in his honor.

The evidence for these postmortem migrations? Graffiti. Scratched into the plaster were prayers in Greek, addressed to the Apostle and the Evangelist.

I had been willing to accept all else as history, if perhaps churchified history, but the temporary burials tweaked my skepticism. Our incandescent guide glowed with faith.

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The Roman tombs

The tour made one final stop. At some point during the excavation of the catacomb in the late 1800s, church archaeologists had discovered three Roman-era tombs. These little villas had been perfectly preserved when the low area where they stood had been filled with rubble to support the church above.

I waited for the crowd to move ahead so I could peer into the Roman tombs. Beautiful delicate mosaics brightened the surprisingly roomy interiors. One tomb had a staircase that stretched down to the tunnels below it. I found it hard to conceive that the Christian architects had just thrown rubble down on these lovely tombs.

“Here is the origin of the word catacomb,” Maria said before we left the area. “This place was called cata cumbas, meaning the low place near the quarries. Here stood a crevice between the tufa hills where the Romans cremated their dead. Since it was already a necropolis, it made sense for the Christians to bury their dead here.”

From this place, the word catacomb spread to refer to any hall of Christian tombs, from the ossuary in the quarry under Paris to the aboveground mausoleum complex at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.

I got all excited. Though I had been ill and injured, it was a thrill to visit a place that inspired so much of what I’ve studied. I suppose the feeling must echo what the Christian tourists felt as they completed their pilgrimages.

This essay was originally published in Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Church burial, Death's Garden Revisited, Famous person's grave, Wish You Were Here | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Vacation in Edinburgh

My dear friend Jeff is on a continuing mission to travel to all the ends of the earth.  He returned from Scotland and sent me these photos from the Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.  With his permission, I share them with you.

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The grave of Greyfriar’s Bobby, a dog that stood watch over his owner after the man’s death. People bring the dog sticks.

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Memento Mori: hand with bell, hourglass, crossed coffins, spade, mummified face, and crossbones.

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The churchyard has watchtowers left over from the days of Burke and Hare.  Guards would stand watch over the graveyard at night to foil grave robbers, who broke into new graves to steal corpses for dissection at Edinburgh’s Medical School.

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You can see Jeff’s photos of his trip to Cuba earlier this year here.

See his photos of the graveyards of Croatia and Bosnia here.

Posted in Cemetery snapshots | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

The Symbols of Oakland Cemetery

by Richard Waterhouse

We all have quiet, calm places that we go to during times of transition. Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery has always been that place for me.

My first encounter with the cemetery was in 1988, when I was at Georgia State (campus is a short walk). I had the opportunity to be in the Georgia State Players production of Our Town. I played the character who comes back after being gone for many years and strikes up a conversation with the gravedigger. The person playing the gravedigger and I decided to come out to Oakland Cemetery and practice our parts there to give us the authenticity of a cemetery.

In 1989, I was looking for a place to become a tour guide. The Atlanta Preservation Center was looking for guides, so I began my lifelong love of and dedication to the cemetery. When I first started doing tours, there were just 15 of us. Now, there are over 145 guides and gift shop volunteers. At the beginning, we each did tours every three weeks; now we do one about every two months.

I started leading tours before the bell tower was opened as the gift shop, with refreshments and bathroom facilities. Back in the beginning, you brought your own water for the tour. On one of my first tours, I parked the car halfway along the tour route. On that incredibly hot summer day, we all hovered around the car and drank water at the mid-point of the tour.

In the early 1990s, I became friends with the sexton of the cemetery. He let me know of a couple grave plots for sale near the grave of Bobby Jones, who won the grand slam of golf in 1930: the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, the British Amateur, and the British Open. I purchased the plots, but since I am not a golfer myself, I will probably spend eternity chasing golf balls for Bobby Jones.

The two most-visited graves in Oakland are Bobby Jones (1902-1971) and Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949), author of Gone with the Wind. That book has been translated into over 40 languages. In 1939, the movie premiered in Atlanta. You can still visit the Georgian Terrace, the hotel where Clark Gable (Rhett Butler) and Vivian Leigh (Scarlet O’Hara) stayed during the premiere. I just recently had lunch there and could still feel the ambiance of the Gone with the Wind days.

I became fascinated by the Victorian symbols throughout Oakland Cemetery and put together a special Victorian Symbolism Tour in 2000. (When I created it, there were only 4 special tours offered. Now there are more than 15.) In 2010, I turned that tour into a book called Sacred Symbols of Oakland: A Guide to the Many Sacred Symbols of Atlanta’s Oldest Public Cemetery, which is still for sale in the Oakland gift shop. (Ed. note: And on Amazon!)

Because I’ve spent so much time in Oakland, I thought it might be fun to share my 5 favorite monuments.

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All the cemetery photos in this article are by Dinny Harper Addison. Used by permission.

“Our Thomas” was placed in 1870, a memorial for a child who died way too young. Thomas has turned into a baby angel, a guardian and messenger from God. He kneels on a pillow, which suggests sleeping, because the Christian Victorians believed that death was a resting place before the Second Coming. Next to this monument is a broken column covered with a mantle. A broken column signifies that the life of the person buried there was cut short. The mantle symbolizes the area between life and death. If you are on one side of the mantle, you are alive. On the other side, you are dead.

Sculptures like “Our Thomas” were originally designed without wings to grace English gardens. Wings were added later, designed for cemeteries to convey how many children died so young from diphtheria, smallpox, and influenza because vaccinations were not available. These child angels appear in Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States.

Notice the skyline of Atlanta in the background of the photograph. One of the stunning juxtapositions in Oakland is the old historical part of the cemetery against the vista of contemporary buildings outside its walls. At night, when all the buildings are lit, they cast an eerie glow on the monuments.

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The McNamara angel was completed around 1901. Angels act as guardians, messengers, and protectors of the dead. The Latin cross implies resurrection, referring to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for our sins. Notice the “IHS” on the cross, the first three letters, transliterated, of “Jesus” in Greek. On the angel’s brow sits a five-pointed star, which indicates heavenly wisdom. She holds a utensil to write down the good deeds of the person buried below so that he or she can have eternal life.

On March 14, 2008, the cemetery was hit by a major tornado. Even though the cross behind her toppled, our angel remained standing, protecting the area around her.

During World War I, Atlanta Irish immigrants buried their dead in this part of the cemetery. Since they did not have permanent homes, male immigrants of draft age listed Oakland as their residence. The Atlanta War Office could not understand why so many men listed one place as their residence.

The angel, minus a few fingers because of the tornado, points towards heaven, guiding souls. If you have visited Victorian cemeteries throughout the United States, you have seen many things point towards heaven, including obelisks.

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This is the Wife and Daughter Neal Monument, one of the prominent monuments on the Oakland Cemetery Overview Tour. It was completed in 1874 and shows the rich array of symbols the Victorians used to commemorate the dead.

The Celtic cross stands for eternal life and Christ sacrificing himself for our sins. The books are probably bibles: the closed one suggests a life guided to completion by the Scriptures; the open one illustrates the spiritual wisdom that leads to an eternal life heavenward, the direction of the statue’s gaze. The laurel wreath and palm branch signify victory over death and the triumph of eternal life.

This was the first gravesite to be part of Oakland’s Adopt-A-Plot Program, for which individuals and businesses volunteer to preserve and maintain designated monuments and their immediate surroundings.

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The Gray Weeping Woman, completed in 1917, tells a story inherited from classical Greek mythology about Niobe, Queen of Thebes. Like most proud mothers, Niobe talked incessantly about her many children. Because she was supposed to be worshipping the goddess Leto, this bragging did not go over very well. Leto had her very powerful children Artemis and Apollo kill Niobe’s children.

In Victorian cemeteries, Niobe is portrayed as the eternally grieving mother. The legend of this particular monument is that, on a full moon night, you can see tears streaming down her face.

The wreath of laurel represents immortality, since the leaves never wilt or fade. Chiefly a symbol of victory, however, the wreath emanates a somber ambiguity when Niobe’s defeat is remembered.

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This is the Lion of Atlanta, completed in 1894.The Atlanta Ladies Memorial erected “Lion of Atlanta” to honor approximately three thousand unknown Confederate dead buried in this area. The marble came from Tate, Georgia and was the largest piece quarried in the United States at the time.The sculpture by Canton, Georgia artist T.M Brady (1849-1907) portrays a lion lying on a Confederate battle flag. The lion embodies courage, majesty, strength, and valor. The firm foundation of the rock it lies on suggests that the soldiers died for a cause they believed in. The flag illustrates unity and the rifle indicates the power of the confederacy.

The Confederate lion is modeled after the Lion of Lucerne in Switzerland by Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844). That sculpture was completed in 1819 as a memorial to Swiss Army Guards slain protecting Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI during the French Revolution.

The power and grandeur of Oakland Cemetery can be captured in the five images portrayed in this article, but they are not a substitute for an actual visit to this extraordinary outdoor museum. I have been very lucky that I found Oakland in 1988. I continue to learn new facts about the cemetery every time I visit.

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Richard page 7Richard Waterhouse has led tours of Oakland Cemetery since 1989. In 2000, he designed an Oakland “ramble” that spotlighted its symbols. In 2006, he founded Waterhouse Symbolism to research and document gravestone symbols internationally. As part of the organization, Richard sends out a monthly e-newsletter on symbols throughout the world. If you want to subscribe, send him an email at rwsymbolism at gmail dot com.

Richard currently serves as Manager of Leadership Giving of Georgia Public Broadcasting Media in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Creeping In and Out of Cemeteries

by Anne Born

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Cedar Grove Cemetery, South Bend, Indiana. Photo provided by the author.

I’ve finally convinced my children that it can be both informative and restorative to visit cemeteries. Is this a major accomplishment and testimony to my superlative parenting skills? Yes, most definitely.

My daughter and I paid a brief visit to Michiana over the weekend. Michiana is that difficult area that is part Michigan and part Indiana and completely difficult to explain to New Yorkers. You fly through Chicago or Detroit and change planes to South Bend, but my family didn’t live in Indiana even though I went to high school there and my dad worked there. So, sometimes I say I’m going to Chicago: lots of people have heard of Chicago. Other times, I say I’m just going home and then try to field the questions about where exactly that is. But if you grow up in this no man’s land, you get really used to moving back and forth over the state line so often, it tends to blur. It’s Michiana and it’s where my family is.

This trip we decided — yes, we — to visit as many cemeteries as we had time. We started out at Notre Dame (pictured above) to visit the graves of my twice-great grandparents who came to South Bend in 1880 to help build the first Catholic university in America. They are both buried here in a cemetery on campus that used to be the parish graveyard.

I stepped out of the car to visit their graves, leaving the window on the driver’s side open. When I got back, there were two leaves on my seat. I took that as a sign.

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The next day, we left early to find a cemetery farther south near Culver, Indiana where my 4th great grandfather and his wife are buried. This was a beautiful, very old cemetery, but it was in wonderful condition and their stones were quite beautiful. I took some photos and got back into the car and saw the trunk light “open” light was on. My daughter assured me I had somehow pushed the trunk button.She got out to close it and we drove on.

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The next graveyard was in Argos, where my great grandparents and their siblings are buried. I have a twice-great grandfather who was a Union soldier; his gravestone was donated to his family by the US government. There’s a metal marker identifying him as a veteran, too. While I was standing there, a ladybug landed on the back of my jacket.

I took that as a sign, too.

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Our next stop was at a nearby cemetery in Plymouth where the pioneers of my father’s family are buried. The stones are broken and very difficult to read, but I have the cemetery records and can identify the occupants of each of the plots in the farthest and oldest section. When I visited this site a few years ago, the cemetery officer who took my phone call was kind enough to post bike flags on the graves, so we could know which were our family’s graves. He also took and sent me photos, which was a tremendous kindness.

When I got back in the car, again the trunk light came on again and again my daughter closed it, reminding me not to hit the trunk button. We went into town to shop a bit and get lunch. We found ourselves in the midst of the annual Halloween parade, with kids and grownups alike in costume. It was wonderful –- not at all scary. Just wonderful.

The next day, we stopped at the cemetery where my mother is buried and laid small stones on her grave to let people know someone had been there, someone cared. I found the grave of one of my best friends, who died in the 8th grade, and placed a stone there as well. It seemed the thing to do.

It was only on our way out of town, back to the airport, that I needed actually to open the trunk to put something inside. To get into the trunk -– and trigger that warning light -– I had to pull up hard on a lever near the bottom of the driver’s side door. This action released the lid so you could get things in and out. It’s not a button you could graze with your jacket. It’s a handle. You pull it back until you hear the trunk lid pop open.

I think I have to take that as a sign too. Creepy? Oh yeah. But wonderful? Most definitely. The spirits are with us these days.

Originally published on The Backpack Press: Writing about New York and Everywhere Else on October 29, 2014.

Anne’s previous Death’s Garden contribution was called Toasting a Ghost in Northern Ireland.

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401113_352887774743767_1246657870_nAnne Born: Pilgrim, writer, photographer, mom. Look for her books A Marshmallow on the Bus: A Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (June 2014) and Prayer Beads on the Train: Another Collection of Stories Written on the MTA (March 2015) at the NY Transit Museum Store, Word Up Community Bookstore, CreateSpace, Q.E.D. Astoria, and Amazon.

Anne’s bookstore: http://astore.amazon.com/thebacpre-20

Contact info: http://about.me/anneborn

Anne’s websites: http://thebackpackpress.com and http://tumbleweedpilgrim.com/

Check out her podcast on Our Salon Radio: Born in the Bronx.

 

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation. The submissions guidelines are here.

Posted in Cemetery essay, Death's Garden Revisited | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Death’s Garden: New Orleans Blues

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All photos of St. Louis #1 in New Orleans provided by Christine Sutton.

by Christine Sutton

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to go on a much-needed vacation. Some time away from the stress of everyday life was just what we needed. We had a little more than two weeks available and really wanted to make the most of our time, so we got a map of the United States and proceeded to go state by state, weighing the pros and cons of each potential excursion. We had both always wanted to visit New Orleans, so we figured this would be the perfect opportunity.

I was so excited to see the sights of the Crescent City: Bourbon Street, the French Market, the view of the Mississippi at dusk, and of course, the iconic graveyards.

After spending our first few days in the city sampling its unbelievable cuisine, partaking in the nightlife of the French Quarter, and walking through Jackson Square amongst the fortune tellers and musicians to get to Café Du Monde so we could get our fix of sugarcoated beignets, we decided to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1.

By eight in the morning, as we set out to visit the historical boneyard, it was an already sweltering July day. We passed groups of musicians standing at the various intersections within the Quarter, tuning their instruments and playing soft, sweet renditions of various songs made famous by Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. The melodic notes of love, loss, and heartbreak filled the air and brought with them a perplexing blend of joy and melancholy. We could smell that morning’s beignets and chicory coffee being prepared and we vowed to stop on the way back to indulge our cravings once again.

Strolling down the street, we spotted a white carriage with a dapper driver sitting upright in its seat. He wore a red silk vest over his all-black outfit and a top hat, accented with a ribbon in the same shade of crimson. The white horse standing majestically in front of the carriage seemed unfazed by the crushing humidity and whinnied as we passed by.

13414568_1208052909205321_1219587709_n“Headed to St. Louis?” the driver asked.

“Yes, we are,” I replied with a smile.

“Don’t you let none of them ghosts follow you home,” he said, with a warm smile of his own that was most likely reserved for tourists, to make them feel at home.

“We’ll try!”

After walking a bit, we came to the entrance of the St. Louis Cemetery #1.

It was a sight to behold. The walls of the outside were a stark, blinding white against the colorful background of the vibrant town. The cemetery had the look of a small city within a city, with peaks and crosses visible above the borders.

We read the plaque outside the gates, telling us the history of the graveyard. There was a feeling of awe within us as we entered. The palpable sense of history and death weighed heavy on our hearts.

Modern-looking structures stood, reminding us that death knows no time. Whole families had been laid to rest within mausoleums dedicated to honoring their heritage. The graveyard was laid out like a labyrinth, with very little space between the dead. The dead had no need for personal bubbles, or room to stretch. Mixed with the grandiose artistry was a feeling of utilitarianism that illustrated the cost of death in real estate and privacy. Both were obviously premium commodities.

We walked amongst the monuments, taking pictures of the beautiful architecture of sadness and loss.

13444491_1208052605872018_73292860_nReaching the center of the cemetery, we began to see the darker side of New Orleans’ history. There were several of what they called “oven vaults,” rounded, aboveground graves that sat stacked on each other to maximize space.

Beyond that, we saw the older, untended vaults that were in different states of disintegration. There was yet another plaque, telling us that many of the bodies previously interred here had been washed away during Hurricane Katrina and other natural floods and disasters. It reminded me of an old building I had seen in the Gold Country of Northern California. The burned-out brick structure sat as a reminder of time, a century or more in the past, when life was much simpler.

The dead, whose remains had been long forgotten by their descendants, or the dead, whose remains were the last vestige of their line, had been moved or were missing from their resting places.

As we stepped away from the destruction of those graves, we searched for one of the reasons we had decided to go to the graveyard in the first place: the burial site of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.

As we stepped up to the tall, square structure, no bigger than a closet, we noted all of the tiny triple X marks made on the outer walls, and the small trinkets laid around the opening. There were beads of all colors, lip balms, small figurines, toys, and coins. It made me a little sad to see all the hopes of people who had come to ask for help reduced to a few baubles.

13454077_1208052555872023_197699475_nLegend says, if you go to the resting place of the Voodoo Queen, you carve or write three Xs on the tomb, turn around three times, place an offering to Madame Laveau, and ask her to answer your plea.

Being tourists, we felt it necessary to partake in the local tradition. I placed my three marks, turned in a circle thrice, and placed a coin at the door of the tomb. I asked that our travels be safe. We took a few more pictures and went on our way, exploring the rest of the grounds.

When we rounded a corner, we saw another small building covered with X marks. Although we were confused by the second mausoleum, we decided to take a look.

At the door, a dark-skinned woman sat, holding a small, folded blanket in her hands. Her face was streaked with tears, and she gently rocked and chanted. I felt like an interloper in this woman’s grief.

Her head raised and her eyes met mine. She gave me a forced smile and wiped at her tears. She placed a yellow flower on the ground and said in a thick Creole accent, “Let his soul be at rest.”

I saw that the blanket she placed next to the already wilting flower was adorned with pictures of each letter of the alphabet in a cartoon style, with a teddy bear hugging each one.

I felt a deep pain in my heart for this woman, one that tugged at my soul. She quickly walked away. I wanted to tell her not to leave, to please not let us interrupt her mourning. Before I could untie my tongue and work past the lump in my throat, she was gone. As a remembrance of the solemnity of that beautiful place, I took a photo of the tomb with the delicate receiving blanket placed at the entrance. When I looked around the maze of graves, I saw no trace of the woman, save for that tiny blanket.

We continued our tour of the cemetery, marveling at the beauty and sadness. Thoughts of the woman never left my mind.

Upon returning to California a week later, I spent an evening sifting through the hundreds of photos taken on our trip. When I happened on the photos taken of Laveau’s tomb, I looked for the picture of the sad blanket with the happy bears. It wasn’t there. There were shots of the Mississippi River, the decadent plates of Creole food, bright colors and extravagant displays, various people we met along the way. Even the pictures taken at St. Louis Cemetery were there, but the picture of the blanket was completely gone.

Many times over the last few years I’ve thought back to that woman and the grief she carried for what I presumed was her infant son. I’ve even considered doing some research to find out who she was and what happened to her child. Every time I think I might do it, something in me stops.

I think I don’t like that feeling of being an interloper in the woman’s grief.

So I will leave her sadness sitting in that folded blanket covered with the cartoon teddy bears, at the feet of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Exactly where it belongs.

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13407536_1208003029210309_1063963517_nChristine Sutton is the author of the bestselling series The Burkheart Witch Saga, along with several other titles in the horror and paranormal genres. She writes short stories, collections, novels, and essays about scary people and things whenever she can. Living in Central California, she has had a fascination with cemeteries since she was young. Christine has visited many graveyards in her home state with tombs dating as far back as the 1700s, but her heart left a small piece of itself in New Orleans.

Check out Christine’s books on her Amazon page or follow her on Facebook.

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Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

 

 

 

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