If you truly love someone, impress her with this magnificent book. It’s 12×15 inches and chock full of black-and-white photos of grave monuments in New Orleans. Cook focuses on the old favorites of Metairie Cemetery’s lovely marble maidens and Holt Cemetery’s handmade tributes, but she also ranges into the less-often viewed St. Louis #3 and St. Patrick cemeteries, documenting beauties where even a dedicated cemetery maven might fear to tread.
Cook’s kooky perspective initially disorients the viewer. Often her photos are tilted to the left, swaying drunkenly across the uneven ground. Cook is fascinated by telling details on the monuments before her: the lopped-off branches on a wrought-iron fence, the grain of stone in an angel’s robe, the words “No Fer-goat” hand-lettered on a board, the stone feathers on a broad-chested double-headed eagle, the tendons crossing the back of a bronze hand, the coils of a maiden’s ringlets. The elements that capture her attention make this wonderfully idiosyncratic book a window into the soul of the artist behind it.
In addition to some truly spectacular photos of angels and muses, Cook features some pinnacles of ironwork. I don’t remember ever seeing such a fine collection of it elsewhere. She also turns her camera onto broken tombs and vandalized statuary which, in perspective of the wonders surrounding it in this book, make the damage that much more poignant. She drives her point in the most telling way possible.
Also included in the book are Cook’s beautiful pencil sketches, a brief historical essay of each on the nine graveyards she visits, a key to cemetery symbolism, and a bibliography.
This huge book is clearly a labor of love. It’s worth finding space on your shelves for it.
This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #6, after I met Cook at the Association for Gravestone Studies’ conference in San Francisco.
It’s always fascinating to visit a graveyard with an insider. Mr. Gandalfo had a unique perspective on this New Orleans cemetery: he began working there in 1915. He wrote the first edition of this book in 1981, after collecting up stories, history, and things only an employee would know. It’s wonderful to hear the official explanation of the ghostly red light flashing on Storyville madam Josie Arlington’s tomb and the insider details of the temporary burial of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Founded in 1872, Metairie Cemetery is a showpiece of world-class funerary architecture and statuary. Highlights range from the Egan family’s “Ruined Castle” to the Brunswig pyramid, from the grieving bronze Vonderbank niece and nephew to the miscellaneous angels, muses, dogs, sarcophagi, and Civil War monuments. The black-and-white photographs here are adequate, if not especially artful. Even so, they should inspire you to want to see this lovely place for yourself.
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.
Lonely Planet rates Metairie Cemetery #1 of all the things to do in New Orleans. Map to the cemetery
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.
Sponsored by the Friends of the Cabildo (an historic preservation volunteer organization), New Orleans Architecture, Vol. 3 is a continuation of their books detailing the past of this extraordinarily multicultural city. New Orleans Architecture #3 is a superbly comprehensive work, containing much to appeal to scholars, aficionados of cemetery imagery, and artists looking for evocative source material. Exceptionally designed, it manages to supply in-depth data while remaining accessible and inviting.
Chapters contributed by different writers are consistently excellent, covering subjects in a lively and fast-moving fashion. It is quite apparent the various authors were united and inspired by love and fascination for their subject.
Hundreds of crisply reproduced black-and-white photographs (with an 8-page “color album” section) chronicle “A Brief History of New Orleans Cemeteries,” “Influences in 19th-Century Funerary Architecture,” and even the amazing variety of “Cemetery Ironwork.” As an example of the thorough and well-organized nature of this book, the latter chapter has sections on crosses (44 different designs photographed and illustrated), gates and railings, spikes and terminals.
The mostly modest-sized photos are intended to illustrate the rich funerary architecture of the Crescent City rather than to serve as stand-alone “works of art,” yet the artistry of the creators of these monuments to the dearly departed — and the sensitivity and technical skill of the photographers — makes this book a treat for the eyes.
An essay by Bernard Lemann, “Thoughts on New Orleans and Preservation: A Cemetery Elegy” concludes the book. Arguing for minimal restoration that does not disrupt the atmosphere of a decaying old cemetery, he writes, “weeds atop a wall or parapet, the wild, aggressive roots, and the dank, gaping crypt with a glimpse of an antique cast iron casket are appropriate complements to the homely inscriptions that feed the ruminative mood of the cemetery stroller.” Lemann adds, “Such signs of oblivion are of course symbolic messages.”
As one compares the drearily utilitarian modern cemeteries to the rich and imaginative testaments to grief and reverence crafted in stone depicted here, it is difficult to avoid thinking that the “march of progress” proceeds backward as well as forward.
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