I have a lot of cemetery books. I even have a lot of books about the cemeteries of New Orleans. This one is a worthy addition to my library because it goes off in a direction none of the others do. The photographer allowed himself to become obsessed by some of the grave monuments he photographed to the point that he wanted to know who these people were. The stories he uncovers are fascinating, touching, and range far beyond the famous names you would expect. Soldiers, duelists, priests, bankers, violin makers, opera singers, firemen, and more: these people each contributed to the history of this special city, even if their names are no longer widely known.
The black and white photographs, while exquisitely shot, do not stray as far from the usual subjects. Some of that is because St. Louis Cemetery #1 is so well documented, but even the photos of Metairie and Lafayette #1 are common to many other cemetery books. Still, the way many of the photos are taken–emphasizing the dramatic Louisiana skies–made me long to return to New Orleans and see those sights for myself. I think I will spend a lot of time gazing at these pictures.
One of my favorite parts of the photographic section of the book is the way that the repeating motifs are collected together, so the reader can appreciate the iconography of benevolent society tombs or the variations of ornate ironwork crosses or the artistry in all the different styles of urns. New Orleans was truly blessed by the gifts of its sculptors.
The essay which closes the book allows Brantley to explain his relationship to the artwork and architecture he has captured. He speaks of the cemetery as an outdoor museum. His photography certainly proves his point.
If you don’t have any books on the cemeteries of New Orleans, this is a good place to start. If you do, this will be a nice addition to your collection. You can pick up your own copy of this brand-new book from Amazon: https://amzn.to/339O2JF
This book is full of lovely color photographs of the cemeteries of New Orleans. From the frontispiece of the sunset burning behind the crosses of Greenwood to the warm golden light haloing the Madonnas of Metairie, photographer Laura A. McElroy perfectly encapsulates the peace and beauty of these wonderful places. There may be no better advertisement for visiting, supporting, and restoring these historic graveyards.
McElroy also does a good job of catching people and their relationships with the graveyards of New Orleans, from caretakers and families tending graves to costumed tour guides to runners in Metairie’s Race through History. In fact, I’d love to see her shoot a book full of people visiting graves: she has a real knack for capturing the importance of these places to the living.
My favorite chapter of the book is the final one, which visits the Bayou cemeteries. McElroy captures the candle-lined tombs of Les Toussaints les Lumieres du Morte, the Louisiana version of Dia de los Muertos. Everything looks so warm and otherworldly.
Unfortunately, the text doesn’t hold up next to the photos. It consists of extremely short essays of questionable accuracy: the St. Roch essay says Father Thevis vowed to built the chapel in 1876, when in fact that was the year it was completed. Later one of the Jewish cemeteries is referred to as Dispursed of Judah. To be honest, though, if you’re buying a book about the history of the New Orleans cemeteries, it wouldn’t be this one. You’ll want with more meat like Life in the Cities of the Dead by Robert Florence.
Cemeteries of New Orleans is out of print, but used copies are available on Amazon.
This little gem is part of a series which collects historic photographs of Americana. Images of America: New Orleans Cemeteries includes hundreds of black-and-white photographs of more than a dozen New Orleans-area cemeteries, including all three St. Louis graveyards, both Lafayette cemeteries, and the Metairie, Cypress Grove, and Greenwood necropolis. The photos are a nice blend of overviews or landscapes—which give a sense of the larger graveyard—and detail of the reliefs or inscriptions adorning specific tombs.
My favorite section of the book illuminates the Girod Street Cemetery, the original Protestant burial ground, which was laid out in the rural style popular in northern graveyards. Christ Church Episcopal founded Girod Street Cemetery in 1822, but by the 1950s, it had been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that the Church deconsecrated the land and demolished over a thousand tombs. Part of the former cemetery lies under the end zone of the Superdome. Some say this explains why the New Orleans Saints rarely win. The photos of the overgrown graveyard, pre-demolition, are reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Breathtaking!
Another highlight is the chapter on the Jewish Cemeteries, which are seldom featured in other books on New Orleans. Despite the Inquisition’s prohibition against Jewish settlers in Catholic Louisiana, the first synagogue outside the original 13 American colonies was founded in New Orleans, so there is a long history of Jewish burials in the area. Although the monuments span from slate tablets up through modern granite blocks, this book makes clear that Victorian-era artistry was as appreciated in Hebrew Rest as is any other graveyard in town.
The only flaws in this book are minor. There is no list of cemetery names or addresses, not even a contact number for Save Our Cemeteries, the group who’s worked so hard to restore and protect these fragile treasures. That’s the fault of the author. The publisher’s fault lies in the lack of a listing of the other Images of America titles. If I knew how many cemetery books they’d published, I might be writing them a check even now.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
1400 Washington Street
New Orleans, Lousiana 70115 Founded: 1833 Size: one city block Number of interments: 7,000+ Open: Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday 7 a.m. to noon. Closed: Sunday and holidays (except Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and All Saint’s Day)
The sugar plantation once owned by Francois Livaudais was sold to developers in 1832. Among them was Cornelius Hurst, who sold the new town of Lafayette a city block for a cemetery in 1833. Many of the names in Lafayette Cemetery #1 are German or Irish, as opposed to Creole names in St. Louis #1 across town. Lafayette Cemetery had been established to serve “les Americaines,” the newcomers to town after the Louisiana Purchase 30 years earlier. Many people were buried here after the Yellow Fever epidemics that racked the city every summer, as well as families maimed by the Civil War.
Ironwork and trees in Lafayette Cemetery #1
Lafayette Cemetery also differs from the earlier St. Louis Cemetery #1 by virtue of its lanes. These interior streets were designed to accommodate funeral processions, but it makes the cemetery feel more modern, less a jumble of graves or a maze.
Across the street from the fabled Commander’s Palace in the Garden District of New Orleans, Lafayette Cemetery lay in the suburbs when it was founded in 1833. When the city engulfed the area in 1852, Lafayette #1 became a city cemetery. It’s considered one of the safest cemeteries in New Orleans. Consequently, it’s one of the most visited.
That said, unlicensed tour guides continue to loiter inside the cemetery, offering – sometimes forcefully – to show visitors around. These guides are not overseen by the city or affiliated with the cemetery, so accept their aid and information with caution.
A fire brigade tomb, decorated with an old-fashioned pumper truck
Lafayette contains as many as 1100 family tombs, as well as society tombs dedicated to firemen, orphans, or to the Odd Fellows. Even after 179 years, the cemetery continues to be in use. This is due to the caveaux inside the tombs, where the bones of all the previous occupants are jumbled together.
Among the historic figures buried in Lafayette are Judge Ferguson of the Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate-but-equal” Supreme Court case; Brigadier General Harry T. Hays, who led the 1st Louisiana Brigade in the Civil War, and one of the two Confederate governors of Louisiana.
Of course, many people are better acquainted with the vampire Lestat, who retired to his tomb in Lafayette Cemetery. I found an outtake from Queen of the Damned on youtube, which gives a little tour of the cemetery by moonlight.
In 2010, the Louisiana Landmarks Society rated Lafayette Cemetery #1 as one of the nine most endangered New Orleans landmarks. It reported that two massive oak trees threatened more than 30 historic tombs. Although owned and operated by the City of New Orleans, the cemetery lacked adequate grounds keeping and proper tomb maintenance. Worst of all, though, was the lack of supervision of the film trucks, lights, cameras, crews, and extras that have become regulars in the cemetery. Fees for filming in the cemetery are apparently not dedicated for its maintenance or repair, even if film crews damage something by accident.
The volunteer organization Save Our Cemeteries has been working to maintain the cemetery for several decades. To raise funds, they offer daily cemetery tours in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, Monday through Saturday at 10:30 a.m. Tickets for the hour-long tour are $20 per person, but the money goes to help with conservation of the cemetery. Tours fill up, so you can reserve your spot in advance. Here’s the link.
The Bryant family tomb with bricks exposed
Next month, on October 13-14, Save Our Cemeteries will be offering the first (of many, hopefully!) Tomb Restoration Workshops. They will cover vegetation removal, marble cleaning, and minor crack and stucco repair. The workshop will be held in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 and is open to the public, although pre-registration is required. The cost is $100 for one day or $150 for both, limited to 25 participants per day. Please call 504-525-3377 to register.
I don’t know if it’s fair to review a book published on Lulu, but I paid my $32 (It would have been more, but I had a coupon), so I have an opinion on this one. I bought it for Huston’s lovely infrared photos, which are the highlight of the book. To be honest, though, I prefer the black-and-white ones to the ones in which the colors have been touched up. Perhaps it’s the reproduction, but the colors look tacky to me, detracting from the lovely scenery.
The minimal text could have benefited from both editing and proofreading. The introductory essay makes some excellent points about the fragility of graveyards, but winds in circles and dilutes its own authority. Later, a brief quote from Kahlil Gibran (whose connection to New Orleans isn’t clear to me) manages to contain two typos. In fact, I would have preferred if Huston had ditched the unnecessary epigrams from Shakespeare, the Buddha, and Christina Rossetti. Houston’s notes on the cemeteries and monuments — relegated to a list at the end of the book — are more interesting. One hopes she’ll make some changes in the third edition.
The prologue to the 2005 edition says that Huston is donating her profits from the book, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to the Red Cross and Save Our Cemeteries, a New Orleans organization which restores the historic graveyards. That takes some of the sting out of paying for this book.
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