Thursday, October 22

Cities of the Dead

Enter any New Orlean's cemetary gate and you will be greeted by decorative, rusty ironwork, and blinded by the sun bleached tombs. Crosses and statues on tomb tops cast contrasting shadows adding a sense of mystery. Votive candles line tombs on holidays to remind you the Dead have living relatives that still care. New Orleans has always respected the dead, but this isn't the reason the tombs of departed loved ones are interred above ground.
Early settlers in the area struggled with different methods to bury the dead. Burial plots are shallow in New Orleans because the water table is high. Dig a few feet down, and the grave becomes soggy, filling with water. The casket will literally float. You just can't keep a good person down! The early settlers tried by placing stones in and on top of coffins to weigh them down and keep them underground. Unfortunately, after a rainstorm, the rising water table would literally pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. To this day, unpredictable flooding still lifts an occasional coffin out of the ground in those areas generally considered safe from flooding and above the water table.
New Orleans' graves were kept above ground following the Spanish custom of using vaults. The walls of these cemeteries are made up of economical vaults that are stacked on top of one another. The rich and wealthier families could afford the larger ornate tombs with crypts. Many family tombs look like miniature houses complete with iron fences. The rows of tombs resemble streets. There are 42 cemeteries in the New Orleans area with many interesting, fascinating stories. You will notice that flowers, votive candles and hoodoo money (coins left for favors) are left at many of the notable graves. At 90%, New Orleans holds the largest percentage of above ground burials in America.
New Orleans cemeteries have a decidedly European look and feel, but are unique in the look and layouts that the Creoles and later ethnic groups decided were important as they were developed. This gives the city's cemeteries a personal nature that is purely New Orleans.

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