The old Saint Louis Cemetery is the natural outgrowth of the Saint Louis Cathedral and stands with it among the oldest and most interesting landmarks of the historical city of New Orleans.
There is nothing gorgeous in its inclosure, no carefully tended lawns, no level stretches of green, no pebbled alleys or flowers in perennial blossoms.
Everywhere Time has left its wasting mark and whoever saunters within its superannuated walls falls a victim to the mystic silence which begets the memories of the past.
Many writers and commentators have endeavored to trace the history of the Saint Louis Cemetery back to its origin, but lack of documentary evidence has given rise to various opinions as to its date of foundation, original location and dimensions.
Dr. Erasmus Fenner, in his "Southern Medical Reports," published in 1850, seems to advocate the most plausible theory on this subject. "In the earliest days of the city," says the Doctor, "the cemetery was situated in the rear of the Cathedral, near the 'Place d'Armes.' But the number of buildings, increasing with the population, gradually gained more and more ground, and the cemetery was moved to another location much further in the rear of the city. Even now, it is again inclosed within the walls of this ever-growing town, and the time is not distant when the dead shall have to give place to the living."
This hypothesis on the first location of the old Saint Louis Cemetery is confirmed and supplemented by a document which determines, if not the exact location, at least the successive removals of the cemetery.
This document dates back to 1820, and is based upon a discussion between the ecclesiastic and civil authorities.
At this time the Trustees of the Cathedral were ordered by the City Council to remove the Catholic Cemetery, because it was situated too near the residential section and might prove a menace to public health. The Trustees then sought another location, but no suitable one could be found, and the matter dragged until 1823, when the order was renewed in more severe terms, judging from the answer of these worthy Wardens.
Being accused of bad will and the intention to evade the laws enacted for the public welfare, they presented their defense in three long pages filled with assurance and cutting irony. The following is an extract from the whole, written in the pompous style characteristic of those days:
"The Corporation of the Trustees Administrators of the property of the Saint Louis Catholic Church, being fully convinced that the first authority in the State cannot be inspired by other principles than those that concern public welfare, welcomes the coming of the time when it can clear itself of the unjust imputation made against it by a few individuals, and submits to the Legislature the reasons of fact and law which prevented it from complying with the city ordinances relating hereto."
The petitioners cite the rights of the church on the matter and conclude as follows:
"By said documents, we find the Superior Council under the French Government, the Cabildo under the Spanish domination, and consequently the City Council which has succeeded them, have been obliged and are to provide a cemetery for the burial of the Catholics. The ground originally set aside for this purpose was given up for another tract of land between Saint Peter and Toulouse streets. The Church made use of it up to 1788, when the Cabildo ordered the removal of this cemetery to its present location. And we read in an act dated November 14th, 1800, that the said Cabildo has set apart this place out of the lands belonging to the city and promised to have it fenced and filled out of its own funds, because, having deprived the Church of its cemetery, it was its duty to fully indemnify it.
"This brief exposition of the most essential facts shows that the accusation made against the Trustees in not removing the cemetery really falls upon the City Council.
"To this powerful array of facts we will add as concisely as possible the law on the subject: 'There is a principle acknowledged by all the civilized nations of the earth, which is the basis of all civil contracts and the foundation of our Constitution, viz: That no one can be deprived of his property without a full compensation. This universally respected principle becomes still more binding when applied to a discussion involving the ownership of public property destined to the most sacred use.'
"Being convinced that the Legislature will adopt some measure for the removal of the cemetery from its present location, the Trustees cannot recommend with sufficient force that the law passed for that purpose impose on the City Council the obligation of respecting the place where rest the ashes of our relatives, friends and fellow-citizens by preserving it forever as a cemetery. Scandalous would it be if some day would witness the sale of that sacred ground which even the most barbarous nations hold in great veneration."
The following gentlemen, Trustees of the Saint Louis Cathedral, signed the petition: G. B. Labatut, L. Cavalier, N. Cauve, Marin Argote, Simon Cucullu, P. Rousseau, F. Duplessis, N. Girod, C. L. Blache, H. Landreaux and J. B. Wiltz.
The historical problem, therefore, concerning the original foundation and site of the Old Saint Louis Cemetery, resolves itself thus:
The ground for the Catholic Cemetery was first given by the French Government to the Saint Louis Parochial Church when New Orleans was founded in 1718, and the gift was confirmed "de jure et facto" by the Spanish Cabildo.
The cemetery was originally situated in the rear of the church as was the common custom in those days. But in 1743, the city, having grown considerably, the cemetery was removed and transferred near the city's ramparts, between Saint Peter and Toulouse streets. Finally, in 1788, and for the same reason, the Spanish Cabildo had it removed a little further, to its present location.
According to a certain tradition, the "Old Saint Louis Cemetery" originally extended as far as Rampart street, the pyramidal monument which now stands at its entrance being then about in the middle of the site. Later, the burial ground was encroached upon and the tombs on the border were leveled and covered by Basin street. This is confirmed by a map preserved in the City Museum, as also by recent excavations made in the middle of Basin street, which brought to light quantities of human bones. Therefore, it is beyond doubt that the Catholic Cemetery, which was transferred in 1788 to the other side of the city's ramparts, now known as Rampart street, originally extended to these ramparts and included the adjoining ground now covered by Basin street.
Later on, a similar encroachment happened on the other side of the cemetery, as it is substantiated by the following inscription:
Here Lie The Remains of Several of the Family of Robert
Layton, of This City,
As the Old Saint Louis Cemetery is still open to burials, it follows that after many discussions and appeals, the Trustees of the Saint Louis Cathedral finally had the best of the question brought up by the City Council in 1820, and also in 1823, asking for a removal of the cemetery to a further location. Since that time the question has often been agitated, but it now involves more cemeteries than this, the mother of burying grounds in New Orleans, for the city has extended miles and miles beyond the ancient boundaries, and cemetery after cemetery has been encroached upon and surrounded by the homes of the living. Public opinion is respected by law, the common sentiment being that the graves of the loved and lost must not be disturbed.
In the Old Saint Louis Cemetery, it is true, the dead lie so close together that there is almost no room for the erection of another tomb; but the cemetery opens its vaults to those who are the direct heirs of the soil, and the oldest families of the "vieux carre" still bring hither their dead to place beside the remains of their ancestors.
The Old Saint Louis Cemetery deserves more than a passing notice. No other spot in New Orleans so recalls the past with all its history, chivalry, sentiment and romance. It is one hundred and twenty years since it has been open to burials; during that time funeral processions have daily crossed its threshold, conveying thither the dead of all ages and of all countries.
Walk along the tortuous alleys, read the old inscriptions
buried beneath the tall weeds, and you will find there the whole
history of the city since the purchase of Louisiana by the
United States. The writer has searched the whole cemetery and
found that the oldest epitaph extant does not go back further
than 1800. It is traced on a small wrought iron cross and
reads as follows:
Though the Saint Louis Cemetery contains tombs of wealthy families, none but the monument of the "New Orleans Italian Benevolent Society" has an artistic value. The different pieces of this mausoleum were imported from Italy, where they were carved. Three life size statues in marble representing Faith, Italy and Motherhood adorn the monument. It is not perhaps the grandest nor the richest mausoleum in the city, but it seems to be the one which embodies the purest forms of funeral architecture.
The Saint Louis Cemetery appeals poorly to the artistic sense, but it is a spot of absorbing interest to those who know and love the past. Within its ancient precincts rest the remains of those who were the makers of the city's history; the sturdy emigrants who came from the Old World to give to their ambition a larger field; men who figured prominently in the early history of the State, others who worked and achieved nothing. There they lie all side by side, some whose names are still remembered, others, for the most part, buried forever in oblivion.
New Orleans is "par excellence" a cosmopolitan city, and this fact cannot be better illustrated than by reading some of the inscriptions chosen at random from among the tombs in the Old Saint Louis Cemetery. Almost all the nations, even remote China, are represented among the foreigners who rest there beside the children of the land. Some of the resident foreigners have even formed national societies and own a common tomb; such as "La Société Française de Bienfaisance," "Societad Portugaesa de Beneficencia," the "Compania de Voluntarios Catalancs," and others of minor importance.
In the rear of the cemetery, in the same simple, old-fashioned, oven-shaped tomb, rest two men who left an undying name in the annals of our city: the one, Etienne de Boré, the planter who first succeeded in granulating sugar; the other, his grandson, Charles Gayarre, the famous historian of Louisiana.
In the same section of the old graveyard rises a tomb in the form of a fort.
It is sacred —
To the Memory of
CLARICE DURALDE CLAIBORNE,
The Youngest Daughter of Martin Duralde of Attakapas,
and Wife of William C. Claibunie, Governor
of the Territory of Orleans,
Died on the 29th of November, 1809,
in the 21st Year of Her Age.
In the tomb next to the latter, on the left side, lies
Daniel Clark was the American Consul in New Orleans during the Spanish regime, and was claimed by Myra Clark Gaines as her lawful father; a claim out of which grew the litigation of Myra Clark Gaines, which became famous throughout the country, Mrs. Gaines spent her life proving her rights, and after fifty years it was finally decided in her favor by the United States Supreme Court.
The city of New Orleans had to pay the claims, which amounted to thousands of dollars and involved some of the most valuable city property. She is buried beside her father, Daniel Clark, whose grave had fallen into utter decay. Myra Clark Gaines Mazerat, a prominent lady who resides in New Orleans and who was liberally remembered by Mrs. Gaines in her will, restored the ruined grave and built above it a monument.
Further back in the rear of the cemetery in an enclosed corner, amid weeds of tremendous height, rest the remains of several brave soldiers who fought and laid down their lives for their country in the war with England.
The following are some of the epitaphs that are still
What a lesson it is to look upon these abandoned tombs, and how pitiful after all is human greatness. There sleep heroes who bravely gave their lives for the defense of their own City and State, and yet there are none today to show them the simple tribute of gratitude and respect by even so small a thing as keeping their graves in good order.
Not far from those who died on the battlefield in defense of New Orleans, lies buried a youth who fell under the "dueling oaks," a victim of honor, one of the too many who at this time sought vengeance at the point of a foil, or mistook their right with their skill of marksman.
Here Also Rests the Body of
With the dead made self-illustrious by their deeds, are the
dead illustrious by reason of their birth, for some inscriptions
bear names and titles among the oldest of the European nobility,
notably the following:
Illustrious neither by birth nor by deeds, but full of promise for a successful life, was the obscure young man who lies beneath the following touching inscription:
Sacred to the Memory of
Is not this cemetery a world in itself! From all parts of the earth the dead are here: they belong to all the degrees of society, made equal in death! All await in the majestic silence of the tomb the great awakening.
The "Old Saint Louis Cemetery" is something more than an historical landmark. Through the spectacle of death it speaks of life, and nowhere may we recall with a deeper sense of their significance the immortal lines of the poet:
"Life is real, Life is earnest,
Dust thou art, to dust returneth,
Philippe's Printery, Exchange Place, New Orleans, 1908
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