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From Dusk to Dawn: A Depression Era Guide To New Orleans


All Saints Day in New Orleans -- Decorating the Tombs, 1885

Cemeteries of New Orleans

THE cemeteries of New Orleans are truly cities of the dead. In place of marble and granite slabs set in green lawns or hillsides under trees, one finds closely built-up, walled enclosures filled with oblong house-like tombs, blinding white under the hot southern sun. The deceased reside in the midst of the great living city of their descendants.

Very little is known concerning burial of the dead in Colonial times. Interment was beneath the surface of the ground, and there are no re- mains of tombs or monuments, or even slabs, bearing a date earlier than 1800, the older graves having disappeared. After 1803 the rapid increase in population, together with the inroads made by yellow fever and cholera, Created a real municipal problem. New cemeteries were established and old ones enlarged to meet the situation. Rigid regulations regarding  methods of burial were issued. Interment in the ground was forbidden, and brick tombs were required in all cemeteries, which were enclosed within high brick walls. The recurring epidemics of yellow fever, however, sent so many dead bodies to the cemeteries that these regulations could not always be carried out. At times the burial grounds were so overtaxed that the only possible way of disposing of the dead was to bury them en masse in shallow trenches as on the field of battle. It is estimated that more than 100,000 are buried in the old St. Louis cemeteries on Basin and Claiborne Streets alone.

A graphic picture of the condition of the epidemic in 1853, drawn by Cable in Creoles of Louisiana, describes a lack of gravediggers: Five dollars an hour failed to hire enough of them. Some of the dead went to the tomb still with martial pomp and honors; but the city scavengers, too, with their carts went knocking from house to house asking if there were any to be buried. Long rows of coffins were laid in furrows scarce two feet deep, and hurriedly covered with a few shovels full of earth, which the daily rains washed away, and the whole mass was left, filling the air far and near with the most intolerable pestilential odors.' Around the graveyards funeral trains jostled and quarreled for places, in an air reeking with the effluvia of the earlier dead. Many 'fell to work and buried their own dead.' Many sick died in carriages and carts. Many were found dead in their beds, in the stores, in the streets. . . .

The death rate per thousand from 1800 to 1880 in some decades was appalling. The lowest figure was 40.22 from 1860 to 1870, while the highest was 63.55 fr m I ^3 to 1840.

The manner in which rain and water seepage hampered burials is vividly described in DeBow's Review of September 1852:

A grave in any of the cemeteries is lower than the adjacent swamps, and from ten to fifteen feet lower than the river, so that it fills speedily with water, requiring to be bailed out before it is fit to receive the coffin, while during heavy rains it is subject to complete inundation. The great Bayou Cemetery (afterwards St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 on Esplanade Avenue) is sometimes so completely inundated that inhumation becomes impossible until after the subsidence of the water; the dead bodies accumulating in the meanwhile. I have watched the bailing out of the grave, the floating of the coffin, and have heard the friends of the deceased deplore this mode of interment.

The method of tomb burial in New Orleans is unusual. The tombs, which usually consist of two vaults, with a crypt below in which the bones are kept, are carefully sealed to prevent the escape of gases from the decaying bodies. Sometimes they are built in tiers, resembling great, thick walls, and are called 'ovens.' After a period of time prescribed by law, the tombs may be opened, the coffins broken and burned, and the remains deposited in the crypts. By this method a single tomb may serve the same family for generations.

The oven vaults line the walls of the cemetery. In some of the graveyards single vaults can be rented for a certain period, after which, if no disposition is made of the remains by relatives when the period expires, the body is removed and buried in some out-of-the-way corner of the graveyard, the coffin destroyed, and the vault rented to some other tenant. This seemingly heartless procedure was the only possible manner of interment in the restricted areas of the old burial grounds. The system is giving way to burial in the ground in the more modern cemeteries where family tombs do not already exist, but although it is quite safe nowadays to bury the dead beneath the ground, many tombs are still built.

There have always been certain exceptions to the practice of tomb burial. In the Hebrew cemeteries burial has always been in the ground, and only marble and granite slabs and monuments are seen. The Potter's Field and Charity Hospital Cemetery, where the unclaimed or destitute poor are buried, present another and quite different appearance. The Charity Hospital Cemetery on Canal Street, for instance, has the appearance of a well-kept green lawn. Close examination, however, discloses the existence of small square stones in rows, flush with the ground and marked with numbers. These stones mark the graves of white persons at the Canal Street entrance and of Negroes at the Banks Street end. Only a few rows of stone markers are visible, since the entire cemetery has recently been raised about three feet. Underneath the present surface are the forgotten graves of many thousands buried there since the cemetery was established in the 1830's.

The absence of trees in the older graveyards is due to the fact that in so constricted a space the roots would cause an unsettling of the walls and tombs. Flowers, except cut flowers in vases, and lawns are also lacking, since there is no place for them to grow. However, on All Saints' Day, November, Orleanians make up for the lack of flowers, every tomb displaying a remembrance in floral form. The observance of All Saints' Day is a distinctive Creole custom of European origin. Other sections of the country decorate graves on May 30, Memorial Day, or, in Catholic cemeteries, on All Souls' Day, the day following All Saints', but in New Orleans neither of these days is observed in that way. The Confederate dead are remembered on June 3, while Protestants and Catholics alike fill the cemeteries with flowers on All Saints' Day.

In former times the Creole ladies made the day an occasion for the display of winter fashions, and iron benches can still be seen before some tombs where it was the custom for members of the family to sit and receive friends during the day.


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