In Southeast Louisiana, we have some unique ways we deal with and face death. That, in turn, means we pay respect to the dead in interesting ways, as well. We bury our dead above ground and funerals are traditionally accompanied by second lines, (celebrations and dancing in the street) after the solemn part is over with. The traditions and practices might seem a little odd to outsiders, but to us, it’s just how we do things here. People here are just as surprised when they hear, for the first time, that things are done differently elsewhere.
Let’s start with the idea of burying the dead above ground. We don’t do that just to be different, we do it out of necessity. Most of Southeast Louisiana sits just above, just at, or just below sea level. The water table is just below the surface of the ground. This means we can’t bury our dead in the ground because the coffins would float up to the surface eventually. Instead, we lay our dearly departed above ground in mausoleums or free standing tombs. Often, families will have larger tombs that four to six family members are buried in together. Below is a picture of one of my family’s tombs. Four of the six slots are taken, with two remaining for family members still with us.
It’s fascinating to see what outsiders call our Cities of the Dead. When driving into Orleans Parish on I-10 East from Jefferson Parish, as you cross the parish line and head toward the city, you’re surrounded by what literally looks like a City of the Dead. In actuality, it’s several cemeteries butting up against one another, with the interstate carving down the middle. I’m sure it’s quite odd for outsiders, but here in New Orleans, it’s just another overlooked, quirky feature of this nearly 300 year old city that was settled on mostly swampland.
In New Orleans, our cemeteries are not relegated to the outskirts of town: they are sprinkled throughout neighborhoods across the city. For example, the famed and beloved Commander’s Palace restaurant sits just across the street from the Lafayette Cemetery #1. Just behind the French Quarter on Basin Street is our oldest existing and most famous cemetery of all – St. Louis Cemetery #1. Here lay people like Marie Laveau (famed Voodoo priestess), Bernard de Marigny (for which the Faubourg Marigny is named), and Bejamin LaTrobe (famous architect). We actually live not a quarter mile from St. Louis Cemetery #3, located on Esplanade Avenue. Even our football stadium, the Superdome, is built among land that once housed the Girod Street Cemetery (It was deconsecrated in 1957 after it fell into disrepair. All the bodies were relocated to other cemeteries before the Dome was built).
In New Orleans, it’s easy to pay your respects to the dead. Cemeteries are seamlessly woven into neighborhoods because in most cases, the cemeteries pre-date the neighborhoods. The neighborhoods sprung up around them and as a result, New Orleanians have grown comfortable with the dead and their resting places. They’re a part of the landscape of everyday life just as traffic, homes, and office buildings are. Our close proximity to the dead means it’s not a foreign concept to us. Death is cause for mourning but also celebration. Being so close to the dead, being faced with their above ground tombs daily, reminds us that our time here is short and that we should live it up while we can.