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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