Tag Archives: Louisiana cemetery

Louisiana’s Endangered Cemeteries

Fragile Grounds: Louisiana's Endangered CemeteriesFragile Grounds: Louisiana’s Endangered Cemeteries by Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What an important topic for a book about cemeteries! Louisiana loses the an area the size of a football field every half an hour, as its coast is devoured by the sea. In the last 50 years, Louisiana has lost an average of 34 square miles per year. More than 500 cemeteries exist in Louisiana’s coastal zone: last resting places of Native Americans, slaves and freemen, French, Spanish, Cajun, and more. The book does a good job of laying out the threats these cemeteries are facing, from salt intrusion to ground subsidence, flooding, hurricane damage, and being reclaimed by the ocean.

Unfortunately, Fragile Grounds doesn’t do such a great job describing what will be lost. The photos are simple snapshots, usually taken in the flat light of midday. For the most part, these aren’t grand cemeteries with statuary or stained glass or famous names. This doesn’t make them expendable, however. In fact, if the book had focused on the cemeteries, detailing their communities’ history, it would have made a stronger case for saving them. Instead, each graveyard gets a scant handful of paragraphs jammed onto a single page with long captions and multiple little photographs. The layout allows the authors to cover a lot of ground, but I would have liked more depth.

Still, some of the photos are heartbreaking, showing vaults broken open by hurricanes or vandalism, coffins displaced by flooding, tombs sinking beneath the Gulf of Mexico. As the authors point out, “As humans, not only do we mourn the loss of our loved ones, but we also mourn our burial grounds….When those cemeteries left behind fall victim to natural and manmade devastation, such loss unravels the fabric of our history and renders it unrecoverable for future generations.”

I’m glad the authors are drawing attention to the losses to come. I hope someone else will spend more time documenting exactly what will be lost and thereby preserve the memory of it for the future.

I bought my copy from Dark Delicacies in Burbank, California, but you can also find the book on Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #6: St. Louis #1

Offerings at the Glapion tomb

Saint Louis Cemetery #1
Basin at St. Louis Street
New Orleans, Louisiana 70112
Telephone: (504) 482-5065
Established: 1789
Size: One city block
Number of interments: Estimated at 100,000
Open: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., 9 a.m. to noon on Sundays and holidays.

The graveyard, like the Cathedral in Jackson Square, is named for Louis IX, the 13th-century king of France. He funded Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, gave alms generously, twice crusaded to the Holy Land, and urged the Greek Orthodox Church to reunite with Rome. He was canonized in 1297.

Saint Louis Cemetery #1 is situated within the area of New Orleans that came to be known as Storyville. The infamous red-light district operated legally from 1897 to 1917 and gave birth to jazz. After the parlor houses were torn down, the Iberville Housing Projects, rose in their place. New Orleans Access warns that Saint Louis #1 “is one of the most dangerous cemeteries in town. The only way to see it safely is with a group tour.”

Saint Louis #1 is the oldest surviving cemetery in New Orleans, if only a shadow of its former self. The Varney family pyramid, close to the current entrance on Basin Street, once stood at the geographic center of the graveyard. The pyramid, circa 1810, is one of the earliest tombs to survive. The oldest marked grave, adorned with a simple iron cross, houses Antoine Bonabel, who died in February 1800.

The most famous resident of Saint Louis #1 may or may not be Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. The Glapion tomb would be nondescript but for the trios of brick red Xs defacing it. New Orleans Access records that the grave is inscribed (in French): “Here lies Marie Philome Glapion, deceased June 11, 1897, aged 62 years. She was a good mother, a good friend, and regretted (sic) by all who knew her. Passersby, please pray for her.”

The death date of 1897 is not the famous Marie’s, but is closer to her daughter Marie’s. Many people believe the remains of the two Maries were switched between Saint Louis #1 and its younger sibling, Saint Louis Cemetery #2. Robert Florence, author of City of the Dead, suggests that Marie Laveau’s bones, wherever they once lay, were cleared out of her vault after her entombment, since “bones are one of the most popular forms of gris-gris.”

According to Images of America: New Orleans Cemeteries, the “tradition” of breaking a brick off of one of the neighboring tombs to scrawl on the Glapion mausoleum began in the 1960s. The surviving Glapions and the Archdiocese of New Orleans see the ritual as vandalism. Still, encouraged by tour guides, people continue to leave offerings at the Glapion tomb and ask Marie Laveau, wherever she may be, for favors.

Other famous residents in Saint Louis #1 include Homer Plessy (plaintiff in the 1896 Supreme Court case that established the “separate but equal” doctrine, overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954), land developer Bernard de Marigny (for whom New Orleans’s Faubourg Marigny is named), Etienne de Bore (first mayor of New Orleans and first to granulate sugar commercially, creating the local industry), Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial (New Orleans’s first black mayor), and Paul Morphy (the first U.S. chess champion). In the city’s earliest days, there was no division between black and white in its graveyards or its caveaus. Segregation began after America made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Useful links:

Tours are available through Save Our Cemeteries.

Beautiful photos of St. Louis #1

GPS information for St. Louis #1 from CemeteryRegistry.us

A list of the New Orleans cemeteries

Books I’ve reviewed that reference St. Louis #1:

City of the Dead: A Journey Through St. Louis Cemetery

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

Elysium: A Gathering of Souls

New Orleans Architecture vol. 3: the Cemeteries