Cities of the Dead

A New Orleans cemetery is a city in miniature, streets, curbs, iron fences, and its tombs above ground like small houses. The city has traditionally respected the dead, yet this isn’t the reason the tombs are above ground. The settlers of the city struggled with many different methods of burying the dead. Most burial plots must be shallow because the water table is high. One too many feet down, and the grave is soggy and filled with water, causing the casket to float. The settlers even tried to weigh the caskets down by placing heavy stones within and atop of them. But following a heavy rainstorm, the coffins would literally pop right out of the ground.

 This was seen during Katrina in the lower parishes of South Louisiana were caskets floated far distances from their resting place. Fortunately the local funeral home had kept records of clothing and items that were buried with the person and was able to return them to their proper location.

Eventually, graves in NOLA were placed above ground, similar to Spanish custom where vaults are stacked on each another. The wealthier families, of course, could afford larger ornately designed tombs including crypts.

The first question always asked is – how is each family member buried in each vault? When the family member is deceased for at least a year and a day before the tomb can be reopened. The person’s remains are transfered to a special burial bag than put to the back of the vault. Their coffin is destroyed and the vault is prepared for the recently deceased family member.  In the case that someone dies before the time restrictions are met, there are temporary vaults used until which time they can be placed to rest.

There are 42 cemeteries in the area with many interesting, fascinating stories. We do like to use Historic New Orleans Tours, owned and operated by Robert Florence, author of New Orleans Cemeteries.

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