Cemeteries are often called "The Cities of the Dead," and nowhere is the term more appropriate than in New Orleans. The soil being low and wet, it is necessary to bury above ground, and, consequently, the cemeteries of this place present the appearance of cities with little white houses, which serve as tombs. As the manner of burial is different from most cities, the cemeteries should be visited by all strangers. In the rear of the city are some graveyards where interments are made in the ground, but, as you cannot dig very deep without striking water such mode of burial is but little used, and then only by the poorer class, who have to dig very shallow graves. The customary way is to bury in tombs of brick or marble, costing from one hundred to one thousand dollars, and in some cases even more. The tombs, which generally consist of two vaults, with a vault below for bones, are well cemented to prevent exhalations from the bodies within, and rigorous laws are enforced to prevent vaults being opened too soon after a burial. The rows of vaults built in tiers are called ovens. After a year or two, if the vault is needed for another person, the coffin, which is of wood, is broken up and burned, and the bones deposited in the vault below, so that, in this manner, many burials can be made in the same tomb during a series of years. Funerals are always attended by friends and acquaintances of the family, as it is considered a mark of respect. One of the first things that strikes the stranger is the little black-bordered funeral invitations on the street corners, the relics of a custom which is derived from the French. In these notices the names of half a dozen families, of near and remote kin, are sometimes mentioned. In former times, these invitations were sent on a silver basket, by a slave to all friends and the omission to send one was considered as a slight. Formerly, when the cemeteries were near the centre of the city, the body was carried, followed by a long procession of priests and friends bearing wax tapers. At each corner the procession would halt and chant prayers for the dead in a most lugubrious tone. Now, the practice is abolished, but it is still the custom for ladies and gentlemen to follow the procession on foot. The black household servants always claim the privilege to follow immediately after the coffin before the family, and it is the custom in the French part of the city for passers-by to *uncover while the procession is passing. (*remove hat)
It is a custom in New Orleans to announce deaths by printing a notice on a double sheet of paper, bordered with black, and to nail these on telegraph poles in the more frequented parts of the town. This practice is confined to the city. It is also a custom to drape the door or gate of the stricken household with crepe, white for the young dead, black for the elderly, and to fasten here also one of the printed notices.
Gentlemen always lift their hats and remain uncovered while a funeral goes by, as a mark of respect for the dead. And this gracious custom is observed in the most crowded marts in the heart of the business day. Catholics invariably lift their hats when passing a church of their faith, and the stranger will observe this done even in the street cars.
It will not do to omit the cemeteries, they are so unlike all other cemeteries of the country. They are simply streets of tombs from ten to fifteen feet high and five to. ten feet in width. All are scrupulously white, whether made of brick and covered with cement and whitewashed, or of marble. Water being so near the surface, no bodies are placed beneath it, but all above.
In addition to family tombs there are tenement blocks of tombs, four tiers or stories high, each space receiving one casket, each block containing fifty or more caskets, and numbered as houses are numbered.
In many of the cemeteries the inscriptions upon tombs are almost
exclusively in French, and sentences similar to the following meet the eye at every turn: "A mon cher epoux," "Dieu seul connait mes regrets," "A
iiotre pere." Here and there may be seen the names of loved children in
groups belonging to one family, as:
AS HAS been repeatedly indicated elsewhere. New Orleans is situated in a marsh. Its greatest natural elevation above the sea level is 10 feet 8 inches, which is artificially increased to 16 feet by the levee on the river bank. Half a mile back from the river the elevation is but little above the sea-level, so that, especially during high stages of the river, a large part of the city is below the natural water line. Strangers are always struck by the singular phenomenon of water running in the gutters away from the river, instead of towards it, as would seem natural. And not only is it necessary to fence out the water that flows past our doors, but the ground upon which we tread is not yet fully redeemed from the dominion of that element, it being impossible to dig three feet without striking water. Under these circumstances it is readily seen that burial, as understood in more elevated localities, is out of the question in New Orleans. The method of interment adopted, therefore, is that of tombs built upon the surface, consisting usually of two vaults, with a lower vault for the reception of bones When it is desired to use the upper chambers a second time. These tombs are built of brick, covered with stucco, of stone, iron or marble. The tombs belonging to societies and benevolent orders are mausoleums of imposing proportions, and often beautified with statues and other ornamental sculptures. The older cemeteries, within the limits of the thickly built portions of the city are enclosed by thick walls, which are honeycombed with vaults called "ovens," each provided with a small arched opening closed with cement and a memorial tablet. These vaults, as well as those built upon the ground, are private property, and are handed down from generation to generation in the same family. The first cemetery in New Orleans, utilized during the days of Bienville, was situated beyond the fortifications to the north of the city, near what is now the comer of Bourbon and Esplanade. Bodies were there buried in the ground.
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 remains 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 from 1830 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.
In connection with these old cemeteries some interest attaches to the history of the San Antoine Mortuary Chapel. This chapel, now St. Anthony's Italian Church, is situated only a short square distant from the oldest of the cemeteries, at the comer of Rampart and Conti streets. About the same time that the council donated the ground for the new cemetery on Claiborne street, complaints began to be made of the frequency of the performance of funeral ceremonies at the Cathedral, which were no doubt a great interruption to business, the Cathedral being at that time still in the center of the city. In deference to these well-grounded complaints the city granted to the wardens of the Cathedral a piece of ground at the location named above, upon condition of their erecting there a chapel to which the dead might be brought for the last rites of the Church. In compliance with this provision, on the 10th of October, 1826, a cross was set up to mark the site of the altar, and the following morning work was begun on the chapel, which was completed within the year at a cost of $16,000. It was dedicated to the most holy Saint Anthony of Padua, and here for many years were performed the funeral rites of all persons dying in the faith of the Roman Catholic Church. The chapel was included in the list of the property belonging to the Cathedral made at the time the church and all its possessions were transferred to the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
The little church of Our Lady of Guadalupe, at Rampart and Conti Sts., was originally the mortuary chapel where all Catholic funerals were held from 1827 to 1860. Convinced that the dead bodies which were taken into the Saint Louis Cathedral during funerals were a means of spreading disease, the City Council forbade the holding of funerals in the Cathedral after 1827. The mortuary chapel was erected near the cemetery by the wardens of the Cathedral to fill this need. After the Civil War the ban on cathedral funerals was removed and the little chapel became a parish church.
The Cathedral is also the proprietor of a cemetery on Esplanade avenue, the ground for which was acquired by purchase in 1849, and which is known as St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. This cemetery is less crowded than the older ones, and is beautified with trees and flowers. Its acquisition for burial purposes gave rise to a lawsuit, the proprietor of a neighboring piece of land objecting to the opening of a graveyard so near his residence. An injunction was sued out to forbid the continuance of interments, and the case being appealed to the Supreme Court, the judges decided that, so far from being necessarily shocking or offensive to the senses, a cemetery under proper police superintendence, "may be rendered one of the most attractive ornaments of a city," and that, in the court's opinion, "such is the case with those of New Orleans." The injunction was therefore dissolved, and judgment rendered for defendants, with costs in both courts.
A curious little burial ground, with the odd personality of a former sexton clinging to it, is the Louisa Street Cemetery. Pepe Lula, a Spanish swordsman and an expert pistol shot, was sexton here for a great many years, and the fact having become known that he had killed a number of men, the people came to believe that he had established the cemetery for the purpose of burying his victims, and thereafter called the place Pepe Lula's Cemetery, which title still clings to it in the popular mind.
The oldest of the "uptown" cemeteries is known as Lafayette No. 1, and is situated on Washington avenue, between Coliseum and Prytania streets. This is now in the very heart of the choicest residence portion of the city, called the "garden district," from the universal practice of surrounding the dwellings with shade trees, lawns and parterres of flowers; but in 1824, when the square was appropriated as a burial place, it was a thinly populated suburb, a mile or more distant from the upper limit of the corporation, which was then Delord street. For many years up to 1862, in fact, this suburb was known as Lafayette, and was governed by its own mayor and council.
This cemetery resembles those of the lower district already noticed in all essential features, though an improvement upon them in the matter of arrangement, being laid out in regular avenues, and planted with trees. The central avenue is especially noticeable from the double line of magnolia trees from which it takes its appellation - Magnolia avenue.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 is also on Washington avenue, much farther out in the direction of the lake, between Saratoga and South Franklin streets. Its area is about equally divided between white and colored people, the tombs of many of the burial societies and benevolent associations of this latter class being located there. Among its most conspicuous monuments are those of the French Society of Jefferson, and of the Butchers' Association.
Many other cemeteries are situated in various parts of the town, and can be visited between sunrise and sunset without cards of admission.
New Orleans, in the early 1900's, had more than thirty cemeteries. The first Colonial cemeteries and some later graveyards such as Locust Grove Cemetery, now the site of the Thorny Lafon Negro school and playground, are no longer in existence. Many of these cemeteries are controlled by church congregations, and several are city property. Almost every one now has a section for Negroes; and there are no exclusively Negro cemeteries.
An Old Spanish document in the Cabildo, dated 1800, and dealing with an auction sale of lots in the old cemetery on Rampart Street 'in front of the Charity Hospital' mentions that shortly after the founding of the city 'the dead were buried on the grounds where later the capitular houses were erected and now stand, and that due to the increase in the population of the city, the said cemetery was transferred to the city block that corners with Bienville and Chartres Streets, being located on the second block coming down from the levee of the river toward the cathedral,' on a plot now bounded by Bienville, Chartres, Conti, and Royal Streets. The cemetery was maintained here until 1743, when it was moved to the ramparts opposite the Charity Hospital of that day, on the square between Toulouse, Burgundy, and St. Peters Streets. In 1788 it was moved beyond the ramparts and a little further south. Basin Street was cut through afterwards and the ground from Rampart to Basin Street detached from the cemetery. Human bones dug up as late as 1900 in this area indicate that it once formed a part of the burial ground. Treme Street (Marais) was cut through in 1838 and the graveyard confined to the river side of the street. The present St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, with the strip on Marais Street, formerly called the American Cemetery, is all that now remains of the original Basin Street burial ground. Soon after 1803 a strip in the rear of the Basin Street cemetery was set aside to serve as a burial place for the Protestants.
As the nature of yellow fever was not understood, every conceivable method of protection was tried. It was felt, for one thing, that contagion spread from the cemeteries, and the City Council carried on a prolonged controversy with the wardens of the Cathedral in an effort to remove St. Louis Cemetery to some other location. In those early days all the ground between Rampart Street and Lake Pontchartrain was a swamp laced with bayous and foul with stagnant water and refuse from the city. Bayou Ridge Road and Bayou Metairie were the highest places. It was decided to leave the old cemetery as it was and establish a new cemetery on Claiborne Avenue reaching from Canal to St. Louis Streets. The square at Canal and Claiborne was afterwards reclaimed. A new Protestant cemetery was also established at the head of Girod Street. The ground later occupied by the City Yard and the Illinois Central Hospital was subsequently detached. Girod Cemetery was in use before 1820, and St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 on Claiborne Avenue dates from 1822. The city found it necessary to establish a pauper burial ground in 1833, and a location on 'Leprous Road' was selected. 'Leper's Land' was the name given to the neighborhood on Galvez Street, between Carondelet Canal and Bayou Road Ridge, because Galvez (1777- 1785) banished the lepers, of whom there was a dangerous number in his day, to that neighborhood, and Miro, his successor (1785-1792), built a house for them there. The new cemetery was situated on the bayou on the present site of St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, and is referred to in old city directories as the Bayou Cemetery.
As the city grew and the yearly epidemics continued, more and more burial grounds were needed. The present group at the head of Canal Street began about 1840, the Fireman's, Cypress Grove, and St. Patrick's being among the first.
The suburban towns of the period above New Orleans, which were afterwards absorbed into the city, also had their cemeteries. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, at Washington Avenue and Prytania Street, was the first planned cemetery in New Orleans, the lanes being laid out in symmetrical order and provision made for driveways for funeral processions.
The first Jewish cemetery, at Jackson Avenue and Benton (Liberty) Streets, dates from the 1820's. It was closed in 1866, but still exists intact and is well cared for. St. Joseph's, on Washington Avenue and Loyola, was established in 1850. In Bouligny, or Jefferson City, the Soniat Street Cemetery began to be used about 1850, while the Hebrew cemetery of the Congregation Gates of Prayer, farther out in Hurstville (on Joseph Street), was established in 1852. Carrollton Cemetery goes back to the 1830's.
After the Civil War the Metairie race track was turned into a cemetery and has become the finest in the city. The Hebrew cemeteries on Frenchmen Street and Elysian Fields, and St. Roch's also date from this period.
Mark Twain once said that New Orleans had no architecture except that found in its cemeteries. He had the public buildings of the city in mind, and his statement was truer when made in 1875 than it is today. There are many beautiful tombs in the modern cemeteries, especially in Metairie. The material used ranges from the soft, cement-covered brick of early days, found chiefly in the St. Louis Cemeteries, to the finest of marble and granite carved and shaped into many striking and effective designs, and representing outlays of thousands of dollars. All styles and combinations of styles of architecture are to be found Egyptian, Greek, and Gothic. The prevailing color is dazzling white, but striking effects are also secured with gray and red granite. A feature of some of the old tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the use of small wrought-iron fences topped with a cross of the same material enclosing a little space in front of the tomb. Every large tomb has a place for flower vases, and most of the 'oven' vaults have a small shelf for the same purpose, some of which are never without floral offerings. The prevailing design in tombs is a rectangle with a rounded top, but diminutive temples, Gothic cathedrals, and irregular designs of various kinds are to be found in all cemeteries. Many mausoleums erected by societies are scattered through all the burial grounds. Sometimes these are plain square 'beehives', but often they are unusual in design, like the mound tomb of the Army of Tennessee in Metairie, and the Elks' tomb in Greenwood.
Fewer epitaphs are to be found in the New Orleans cemeteries than elsewhere. The large number of people usually buried in a family tomb and the consequent lack of space on the slab make anything more than the name and dates impracticable. Wordings in many different languages are found; French and English, however, are most frequent. Perhaps the outstanding epitaph, at least from the old-fashioned Southern point of view, is the rhetorical tribute to Albert Sidney Johnston by John Dimitry, carved on the rear wall of the vault of the tomb of the Army of Tennessee in Metairie.
The cemetery of St. Vincent de Paul, 1322 Louisa St. (take St. Claude car at Canal and N. Rampart Sts.; get off at Louisa St. and walk two blocks left), is notable because of its connection with Pepe Lula, who is credited with having established it, although it appears that he merely developed it after he became connected with the family who started it. A native of Mahon, Spain, heavily bearded and of striking appearance, he was noted for his swordsmanship, and was said to have been a veteran of more than thirty duels. His prowess in this respect was so great that popular tradition states that he started the cemetery in order to have a convenient place to bury his victims. St. Vincent de Paul's also contains the tombs of Mother Catherine Seals, Negro spiritualist leader, and of Queen Marie of the Gypsies, who died March 19, 1916. The large marble tomb of the latter bears the name 'Boacho' and the legend 'Tomb of the Tinka-Gypsy.' Gypsies are said to make regular visits to the resting-place of their Queen.
There are many Hebrew cemeteries in different sections of the city, while the Masons and Odd Fellows have well-kept burial grounds at the head of Canal St. The three St. Patrick Cemeteries, in which many of the old Irish pioneers are buried, are also on Canal St. The Lafayette Cemeteries No. 1, 1427 Sixth St. and No. 2, Washington Ave. between Loyola and Saratoga Sts. contain tombs of many well-known residents of the old Garden District; St. Joseph's, Washington Ave. and Loyola St., contains the original frame church of St. Mary's Assumption, which was moved there from its original site, when the present brick church was erected. The National Cemetery at Chalmette was laid out in 1865 and contains the graves of more than 12,000 soldiers, almost half of them unknown.
In addition to these there are:
Valence Street Cemetery. Sixth district, size one square, bounded by Valence, Bordeaux, Rampart and Dryades streets.
Carrollton Cemetery. Seventh district, size four squares, bounded by Adams and Lower Line, Seventh and Eighth streets.
St. Joseph Cemetery. Fourth district, size two squares, bounded by Washington avenue, St. David, South Liberty and Sixth streets.
St. Vincent Cemetery Sixth district, size three squares, bounded by St. David, Green and St. Patrick streets.
Locust Grove Cemeteries, Nos. 1 and 2. Fourth district, size one square each, bounded by Locust, Freret, Sixth and Seventh streets. Sometimes called "Potter's Field".
St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery. Third district, size one square, bounded by Louisa, Piety, Villere and Urquhart streets.
Holt's Cemetery. First district, size five to six acres.
Hebrew Cemetery. Elysian Fields, near Gentilly road, size one square.
Hebrew Cemetery. Sixth district, on Joseph street, known as "Hebrew Place of Prayer;" size one square.
German Hungarian Lutheran Cemetery. Canal street, between Anthony and Bernadotte.
Chalmette Cemetery. One mile below Barracks, on river. For Union soldiers.
Verret Cemetery. Sixth district, corner Verret and Market streets.
St. Bartholomew Cemetery. Fifth district, bounded by De Armas, Lassey-rusee, Franklin and Hancock streets.
William Tell Cemetery. Gretna, Tenth street, between Lavoisier and Nerota streets.
NEW ORLEANS CITY GUIDE
NEW ORLEANS AS IT IS, WITH A CORRECT GUIDE TO ALL PLACES OF INTEREST, 1885, By W. E. PEDRICK.
STANDARD HISTORY OF NEW ORLEANS. EDITED BY HENRY RIGHTOR, THE LEWIS PUBLISHING COMPANY, CHICAGO 1900. CHAPTER X. OLD BURIAL PLACES. BY A. G. DURNO. Outlines of the History of Louisiana, By Hon. James S. Zacharie, Second Vice President of the Louisiana Historical Society, Member of the City Council of New Orleans, 1903.
[ The District
| Sporting Houses
| The Girls
| Ernest Bellocq
| Bellocq's Women
| Leo Bellocq | Blue Books | Maps | Pictorial Tour | The Transition | Jazz | Storyville Jazz | Sunday Sun News
| Canal Street | Early Mansions | Early New Orleans | French Opera House | Engravings | Links | Comments ]