Life and Death in New Orleans

Great food, music and fun is what this city is all about. It is also a treasure trove of history--particularly the grave yards.

New Orleans is one of my favorite places to visit.  I had the good fortune to pay that city a short visit leading into Halloween and thought I would share a few of my observations and photos from that excursion.  During this trip I tried to imagine myself living there and think I may need to visit a few more times before making any hard and fast conclusions on the matter.

New Orleans is steeped in history and was both a Spanish and French territory before the Louisiana Purchase brought it under the control of the United States—a fledgling republic at that point.

I am not a newcomer to New Orleans, but each time I visit I discover something new.  On this trip I spent my time in the French Quarter also known as the Vieux Carre or “Old Quarter.”  Most people simply call it “the Quarter.”  The Quarter is easy to walk—no hills whatsoever—but covers a generous area.   I have never been tempted to rent a car or even take a taxi once arriving in the Quarter from the airport.

The sights, sounds and scents of New Orleans are intoxicating.  As one walks through the Quarter the architecture is immediately foreign and for good reason—it is—particularly to a New Englander.  The French and Spanish Colonial styles pervade and the low buildings with intricate balconies, alleys and courtyards are visually welcoming—compelling.  Those lucky enough to have access to a balcony spend a good deal of time on them and decorate them for the various holidays, particularly Mardi Gras. 

The sound of Jazz competes with the Blues, but a healthy dose of Rock and Roll can always be heard pumping from the newer clubs on Bourbon Street.  In addition to the clubs there are the street performers—some solo, some more elaborate quartets—that perform on side streets, at the French Market and in the Jackson Square Park area.  The result is a musical ambiance not found in many other cities. The “feel” one gets walking through the Quarter is energizing.  Try to stop exploring once you start.  It will not be easy.

The scent of New Orleans is fresh oysters in burlap sacks resting briefly on the sidewalk as they are moved from trucks into restaurant kitchens.  It is Cajun spices in pots of gumbo simmering in every restaurant.  It is sugary pralines baking with pecans at the local candy maker.  It is freshly deep fried beignets and chicory coffee at the Café du Monde.  It is also the not-quite-so-pleasant odors of a city that is generally hot and humid with air that hangs and stagnates, sometimes invading the peace of one’s nasal passages.  It is all of those sometimes all at once.  It is unique and unforgettable.

I would urge anyone headed to New Orleans to stop at the Napoleon House on Chartres for a drink and perhaps an excellent muffaletta sandwich with a side of jambalaya.  It occupies one of the oldest buildings in the Quarter and has character and charm that epitomizes the city.  One mustn’t tire oneself too much by walking without an occasional respite.  That would be bad form.

New Orleans has a rich and varied history and for someone curious about history it is sheer joy.  On this visit I finally indulged in a guided walking tour of the St. Louis Cemetery No.1, which is on the edge of the Quarter.  The cemetery is a walled compound about the size of a city block filled with mausoleums with a variety of designs and in various states of repair.  One can walk through the cemetery without guidance, but I do not recommend doing so as some of the most interesting bits of history will not be revealed.

Our guide was a young man who was passionate about the history of the cemetery and its preservation.  He was a fountain of knowledge about the history of the city that he told through the dead and the architecture of their final resting places.  I cannot begin to relate the myriad facts that spewed from his mouth as he deftly led us here and there through the grounds.  He started with some interesting information about the mausoleums and their purpose that are both cultural and practical.  The Spanish and French preferred this manner of burial and for the most part the high water table in New Orleans precludes a below ground interment that has any permanence.  Visualize a coffin floating out of the earth and the necessity of these “sheds for the dead” becomes evident. 

Most of the small mausoleums only hold one or two bodies, yet the carved marble placards seem to suggest four or more family members resting together.  Our guide explained that due to the high heat inside the burial chambers—approaching 230 degrees in the summer—decomposition is accelerated.  In one year after being laid in one of the tombs there is only dust and bone fragments remaining.  Some of the structures have a small chamber near the ground where these reduced remains can be placed to make room for a new occupant in the upper chamber.  Those not able to afford an expensive mausoleum are placed in unmarked “public” chambers and after one year the practically powdered remains are removed to make room for another occupant.  Lest anyone think that this is a haphazard practice it is apparently carried out with appropriate religious supervision out of respect for the dear departed.

New Orleans’ notables are all resting here, both famous and infamous.  The carved relief on the tomb of Governor William Claiborne’s wife and daughter tells the story of their death from Yellow Fever.  The Governor came home one evening hoping to find them making some progress towards recovery only to find them dead in each other’s arms.  The carving depicts him kneeling in anguish at the foot of their deathbed. 

Death came early to many in those days.  Yellow fever was a perennial scourge in New Orleans and in 1853, a particularly virulent strain tore through the population taking nearly 8,000 people between June and August.  I will spare the details of what we were told about that impossible situation and the fact that cremation was not an option.  My personal experience of some fetid odors in the Quarter (not the cemetery) during my visit pale in comparison to what the living had to endure that fateful summer on top of grieving the loss of loved ones.

I included a photo of the Denis tomb marker and if you look carefully you will see the date a two-year old boy died in April of 1853.  He is reputed to be the first victim of the Yellow Fever that year and was placed in a tomb that was marked in the normal fashion.  The same cannot be said for the rest of 1853.  The use of the cemetery was sheer chaos thereafter.

I took several pictures of the cemetery and two depict a statue of a girl looking forlorn, shoulders slumped with her hands barely together in prayer.  She is in utter despair.  This statue was revolutionary in the sense that up to that time, the Church only permitted children’s tombs to be decorated with smiling cherubs.  The family that lost this child had the means to commission a sculpture, but they were resolute that it would represent their feelings of loss, not some contrived happiness in death. 

I was going to omit mention of Marie Laveau, the alleged Voodoo Queen, but thought I would pass on what we were told as the guide was indignant relative to what “history” and ignorance has made of her memory.  She was a Catholic hairdresser who catered to the young mistresses of the wealthy.  She overheard much gossip that if exposed, could have resulted in “embarrassment” to the men involved.  She essentially sold her silence (today we call this extortion) by couching her proposal as a service to appease the “gods” the men had offended by keeping secrets from their wives.  Surprisingly, the custom of wealthy men in New Orleans was to have one or more mistresses, but “etiquette” required these men to inform their wives of each such mistress so as to avoid any embarrassment to the wives (the guide’s words not mine).  I am guessing that is not a conversation even the wealthiest and most lustful beast looked forward to having.  How would that coversation go? "Honey, I've got some great news, well great for me anyway..."  Marie Laveau capitalized on this.  The money was paid and some think that Marie’s daughters may have magnified their mother’s alleged powers of magic to continue their own financial wellbeing.  In any event, she was interred in a Catholic cemetery which would not have been permitted had she not been in good standing with the church (per our tour guide).  Her tomb is routinely desecrated (as are a few others misidentified as Marie’s) with black Xs and visitors leave “offerings” at the behest of snake oil salesmen on Bourbon Street who feed the rumors of her status as the Voodoo Queen for their commercial benefit.  Our guide was incensed that the tomb, which also contains other family members, has been treated in this way.

My last tidbit about the cemetery is in regard to a man who is still walking among us, but who somehow wrangled a large piece of real estate in the cemetery for his own tomb.  He built a nine-foot tall pyramid.  Although this certainly reveals the high opinion he has of himself he does not get credit for being the first to fashion a tomb in the shape of a pyramid at the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.  I saw one other, although it was only about three feet tall.  The inscription on the nine footer, if Googled, will reveal more about this devotee to perhaps the most unique cemetery in the United States.  The first to comment on his identity wins a Patch prize.  It will actually be coming from me, so don’t hold your breath for something super fantastic.

Friends, get to New Orleans.  Bypass Aruba, the Bahamas and Florida this winter.  You will be happy you did something different and in my humble opinion far more enriching.  Just check your calendar to make sure you are not going during Mardi Gras without researching what you will experience at that festival.  Let’s just say that it is not a family friendly event. Oh, and the Superbowl will be in New Orleans this year, so good luck getting a room that weekend.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Melissa McCormick November 09, 2012 at 05:41 AM
Nicholas Cage. Thanks for a great article! Laissez Le Bon Temps Roulette!
Phil Dunn November 09, 2012 at 11:13 AM
Good job Melissa! Yes, Mr. Cage once owned much real estate in the Quarter but due to a disagreement with his Uncle Sam a few years ago only the pyramid remains in his real estate portfolio. Email me at prdunn@jacksonokeefe.com and I can tell you about your prize.


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