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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Reaching 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.
Legend 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.
Christine 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.
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.
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.
Vintage postcard of St. Roch’s Cemetery, dated 1915.
St. Roch Campo Santo
1725 St. Roch Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana 70117
Telephone: (504) 304-0576 Founded: 1872 Size: Two square blocks Number of interments: Unknown, due to the reuse of graves. Open: Weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed weekends. (Call to confirm the hours before you visit. They seem to have changed recently.)
As with any cemetery in New Orleans, be aware of your surroundings when you visit.
St. Roch (also Rock or Rocco) was born to a rich merchant family in the Middle Ages. Sources disagree about whether he was born in the 13th century or 14th. He spent much of his life on pilgrimages. During one of these, he caught the black plague, but when he went alone into the woods to die, he was fed by a dog. After that, he could cure plague sufferers.
His cult ebbed and flowed in Europe until it was revived in the 19th century after the devastating outbreaks of cholera. When parishioners survived a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans in 1868, Father Peter Leonard Thevis attributed their survival to the intercession of St. Roch. German-born Father Thevis vowed to build a chapel to St. Roch. This was completed in August 1876. Father Thevis is buried under the floor in front of the altar.
To the right of the chapel stands an Ex-Voto Room full of silver hands, feet, legs, and other body parts, as well as crutches and eye glasses, a testament to cures attributed to the saint.
One of the most famous monuments in the cemetery looks like a grave but is actually an ex-voto imported from Italy by a mother grateful for the health of her little girl. It shows a little girl lying on her back with her hands folded around a wreath of flowers.
The main gate to the cemetery, on St. Roch Avenue, combines Gothic Revival gatehouses with Egyptian Revival pylons crowned with statues. Between these stand a lovely ornate wrought-iron gate that labels the cemetery a campo santo, literally a holy field, but traditionally the Spanish for burial ground. Apparently, it’s named for the Campo Santo dei Tedeschi in the Vatican.
St. Roch Cemetery is surrounded by oven vaults, like the other cemeteries of New Orleans. These vaults are occupied of a year and a day, long enough for the New Orleans heat to dissolve their contents. Whatever is left is then pushed backward into a central caveau where all the remains are mixed together. The niche itself will be reused. This provides lower cost burial than the family tombs or ground burial also practiced in St. Roch.
A second section was added to the cemetery in 1895 when St. Michael’s chapel-tomb was built. The structure, with flying arches, had fallen into disrepair as early as the 1920s, but it has been restored.
New Orleans Architecture, volume III: The Cemeteries says that the cemetery will soon be full. I don’t know if that statement dates to the initial publication of the book in 1974 or to its re-release in 1997.
Vintage postcard of St. Roch Cemetery
One of my vintage postcards has this to say: “Few who visit New Orleans fail to visit St. Roch’s with its unusual above-ground burial niches, like pigeon holes in the wall that surrounds the cemetery, and its romantic Shrine in the center, with storied charm for bringing love to girls who pray therein after visiting nine churches.”
The nine churches are visited on Good Friday, culminating in St. Roch’s Cemetery at 3 p.m., the time Christ is believed to have died. New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead said that some girls put a pebble or a bean in their shoes so that the pilgrimage would be more of a penance.
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