Saturday, April 13, 2013

Buried Above Ground: Strange Tales of Death from New Orleans


If you are any type of fan of this blog, which might amount to a whopping total of five people (up five from last year), you'll know that I gravitate a bit towards the morbid side of history.  I love wandering through old cemeteries, learning about epidemics and diseases that swept through medieval cities and towns, and educating myself about customs surrounding funeral rites and burials. These topics might be gross to some, I realize, but I personally find it fascinating how humans deal with the everlasting mystery of 'death'.

cemetery, family vaults, tombs, St. Louis Cemetery No.1
The entrance to St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 in New Orleans - strange yet beautiful!

Hence my desire - nay, NEED - to visit a historical cemetery in New Orleans (where they bury their dead above-ground) and learn the stories about Louisiana's strange funereal laws.  This post is a decoupage of visits - combining my trip in 2008, when I actually got to stroll around the cemetery of St. Louis Number 1, with my most recent visit in 2013, where I learned some fascinating stories about death and burial in New Orleans from a most-knowledgeable tour guide.  The two journeys together create a concrete and insanely interesting weave - I hope you enjoy!

The most accessible cemetery, should you choose to visit one while exploring the city of New Orleans, is St. Louis Cemetery Number 1.  It is a quick walk from the French Quarter, at the end of St. Louis and Basin Streets.  The neighborhood surrounding the cemetery is a little sketchy (it is not as 'touristy' as the rest of the main French Quarter area) so it is recommended you go in groups and during the day.  There are tons of tours if you would rather go with a guide, but I went with just my two girlfriends in the late morning, and we were completely fine.

The girls out for a nice morning stroll in a creepy cemetery!

St. Louis No. 1 was established in 1789, and is in amazing condition considering its age.  It is literally a maze of tombstones, mausoleums, and personal and family vaults.  We got lost as we wandered the grounds, and it was difficult to orient yourself as the cemetery is walled and enclosed - you can't use outside buildings to navigate.  There are a lot of New Orleans historical figures and aristocrats buried in this formerly prestigious graveyard, but my favorite was the tomb of voodoo queen and figurehead, Marie Laveau.  I did not write my three X's on her tomb wall, or leave an offering, or make a wish, but I did take a photo!

New Orleans cemetery, Marie Laveau grave, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
The tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orlean's "Voodoo Queen"

My visit in 2008 was brief - we came, we saw, we photographed, and then we ran back to our hotel to catch our flight (which turned out to be totally and completely cancelled).  In 2013, during my visit, I got the background information I was so sorely lacking during my 2008 cemetery experience.  It turns out that the afterlife in a New Orleans cemetery is surprisingly temporary!

To begin with, you must understand why the citizens of New Orleans chose to bury their dead above ground.  Geographically, the city is basically built upon a big swamp.  The water table is extremely high in this area.  To bury a casket 'six-feet-under' is virtually impossible - the hole will fill with water long before you hit six feet.  In fact, even if you buried a casket just a few feet under water, the water table would eventually push the casket to the surface and unearth it.  And watch out if you were to experience a rainstorm - caskets would be popping up like daisies from the ground!

New Orleans cemetery, cemetery plaque
The city plaque clearly states the history of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

People tried to keep those pesky caskets underground in some creative ways. They tried filling the caskets with stones.  This didn't suffice - just as a cargo ship can carry large loads using water buoyancy, so worked the caskets.  Up floated the bodies.  Another strategy was to pre-fill the caskets with water, or bore holes in the top of the casket, with the thought that the water inside the casket would supplant the water outside the casket.  No such luck.  This only helped to accelerate the decomposition process, and made the smell even worse.

In frustration, the citizens of New Orleans began to build mausoleums and family vaults to house the bodies of the dead.  This seemed to do the trick.  The rain might flood the vaults, but the caskets stayed where they were.  But from this solution stemmed another couple of problems - the first was the issue of the decomposition process. Vaults could get rather nasty during this time.  They were sealed as airtight as possible, and it then became law to keep the vault sealed for one year (now two) before it was allowed to be opened again.  This prevented the cemetery from smelling constantly of rot, and also helped to prevent the spread of disease.

family vaults, New Orleans graveyard, St Louis Cemetery No 1
Family vaults and mausoleums made storing bodies easier in water-logged NOLA.

The only problem with this was, had you been very ill to the point where you'd fallen into a coma, and then re-awakened to find yourself most distressingly inside a casket, you were very much trapped inside the airtight family vault, never to escape.  This was more common than you'd think, which is a frightening thought.  When another death occurred in that same family, they would open the vault to store the new coffin, only to find the body of a loved one they had previously thought dead - very much out of their casket and not as they'd left him or her.  Hence, New Orleans is riddled with historical stories of zombies and the undead.

zombie grave, tombstone with cage, gothic grave
No zombies for you! Zombie cage tomb courtesy xmorbidcuriosityx.tumblr.com

Another issue was that of space. The vaults could hold up to six caskets maximum.  What to do when the vault was full?  Land was expensive and limited, and most families couldn't afford to built multiple vaults.  The solution was to begin creatively storing the bones of the long-dead inhabitants of the cemeteries.  Burial bags were provided to family members (and only family members could enter the vault to do this particular job), so that they could remove the bones of the dead from the casket, transfer them to the burial bag, and shove the bag into an alcove at the back of the tomb called a vault hole.  The bones of the dead would join the bones of their ancestors in a giant jumble of bone baggies.  They do say time spent with family is precious!

Now, what to do if you have multiple deaths within that one (or two) year period?  It is forbidden to open the vault before the allotted date, but you can't bury the newest member of the afterlife in the ground.  The city came up with yet another solution: they built temporary holding vaults, almost like the sliding mortuary tables in a morgue, so that you could 'store' the body of your beloved until it was time to transfer them to the family vault.

New Orleans cemetery, St Louis Cemetery No 1
A temporary vault built into a wall unit in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

This is why I say, "The afterlife of a body in New Orleans is extremely temporary!" Your body could hypothetically be moved, packed, and re-packed up to three times before coming to rest.  And that's IF your vault doesn't get flooded and your bones float around inside until it dries up!  Busy, busy, busy!

Nowadays, most residents have a cremation clause in their wills. It is simply easier and more economical to be cremated and stored in the city's cremation vaults, which look like post office boxes.  It is a much more permanent and logical solution.

4 comments:

  1. Good post guys. i never heard about this before. thanks for making this post for us.

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    1. No problem! It might be odd, but I enjoy visiting local cemeteries when I travel. I find them beautiful and peaceful, not to mention full of history! I hope you get to visit one if you go to New Orleans.

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  2. I don't think it's odd at all! When my now ex and I went on vacation to Rincon, Puerto Rico (complete opposite side of the island from San Juan), we took a couple long, lazy walks around the above-ground cemetary there. In Rincon, the cemetary is located smack dab in the middle of the small town and everything in it is basically stark white. We questioned each other as to whether or not we were weirdos for walking and a cemetary on our vacation but came to the conclusion that is perfectly natural to want to visit and learn about that sort of thing. We found the centuries-old cemetary to be absolutely beautiful and peaceful. If you ever find yourself in Puerto Rico, be sure to check out its amazing cemetary! It's incredibly unique from anything you've probably ever seen in your life!

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    1. Aren't Puerto Rican cemeteries colorful and vibrant places (all things considered)? I would LOVE to check one out! Glad I am not the only one who finds cemeteries peaceful and insightful. Most of us will end up in one at sometime, anyway. Right? Thank you for sharing!

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