Thursday, June 9, 2011

Gulf Coast Graveyards

So I've barely had a day off since October of last year, when I took a birthday trip to the beautifully wicked city of New Orleans, LA. While there, I obviously soaked up the creepy, and spent my days rooting out the authentic from the tourist. There is plenty of both in this old city, and much of it remains despite the high waters of 2005. That being said, I sadly did not venture out from the quarter, and restricted my activities to investigations of old horrors, instead of recent ones. That is another pilgrimage all together. I managed to find the legit voodoo and occult shops, avoided the ghost tours, and sought out all the spots in the quarters known for macabre histories, and sometimes regaled bystanders on the grim history all around them. Never pay hard-earned cash for an official tour when a well chosen book on the area and a willingness to converse with strangers can get you an even better experience.

But I am veering off course.

There is no better place than NOLA to start an examination of Gulf Coast graveyards. The water table of this bowl-shaped berg on the edge of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain (two bookends that proved devastating to the city) makes burial in the ground impossible. Thus we have the magnificent Necropoles of New Orleans. We visited one such as the last stop before piling into the car for the 5 hour ride back to Houston. It was a toss-up between Lafayette Cemetery and one of the St. Louis Cemeteries. Being close to the edge of the Quarter and one of (if not the) oldest cemeteries in NOLA, we chose St. Louis Cemetery #1. At 9am, the graveyard was open, serene and approachable. The sky was overcast, and the black cat that counts the necropolis as part of his territory, is friendly and affectionate. Many of these photos are available in my Etsy Shop.

There's plenty to appreciate in this cemetery, from founders of the city, voodoo queens with several rumored burial sites (you'll know these vaults because of the many markings and offerings from visitors), and entire families wiped out by Yellow Jack (yellow fever) that gripped the Gulf Coast port towns throughout the early settlements through the 19th century.

Though the cemetery is kept in good repair by the a city-based organization, many of the tombs are in disrepair, cracked or in pieces. But I doubt even the highest of human effort to keep up with nature could stop the decay of a place like St Louis #1, especially with the kind of nature New Orleans experiences. It's also fairly standard for vegetation to grow anywhere it can in the subtropical climate of the Gulf Coast. Above you'll see I took a shoot of a wildflower vining out of a crack in one of the tombs, a good four feet above the nearest bit of soil.

I had hoped this photo would have a good story behind it, but I've not been able to find out where this statue's head has gone off to, or when it took a hike, or why, or how. This is part of the large Italian monument and vault. A similar alcove on the other side of the rounded vault has a statue made famous in scenes from Easy Rider.

In some cases, age adds a lot of charm. This intricate wrought iron fencing around a family plot has rusted over so completely that there is new dimension to the design. I was immediately drawn to it, and, if monuments and decoration on graves are intended to draw attention as much as to pay tribute to the dead, this gate served better than the vault itself.

Higher up, there are fewer signs of rust, but wrought iron, so often identified with Louisiana and French architecture, was found throughout the cemetery. I imagine some of these lighter pieces may be restored or replaced as nature attacks over the years.

The signs of wear also add interesting dimensions of color to the older tombs and vaults. I did notice that there were some newer graves (they definitely stand out among the ancient ones). Some of the newer burials have been in the 21 century even, and being a popular cemetery that takes up a mere city block and has been in use since the 18th century, I can't help but wonder if bodies are displaced to make room for the new. And of so, who is chosen to go, and how much does a family pay to stay?

Though all in all, the cemetery is peaceful and well-respected, I will leave you with one small note of disquiet, as my mother pointed out when we turned the corner to see the line of poorer vaults lining the western end of the cemetery. Strangely, very little about St. Louis reminded me of death. Though sometimes austere, and ornate, it always seemed a celebration of life (which seems in keeping with the spirit of the city itself). But this last row took me far away from New Orleans, and to a much darker past than this city, post Katrina or Pre, can conjure.

Are you not also reminded of crematory ovens?


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