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New Orleans' Grave Traditions Unearthed : Customs: The many elaborate sculptures and unusual layouts of the city's cemeteries make them an interesting tourist attraction.

Charles Hillinger's America

February 04, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER

NEW ORLEANS — Red X's scrawled with lipstick, crayons and red bricks cover the Greek revival tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orleans' most widely known voodoo queen who died in 1897.

The red X's are always there. They're voodoo wishes.

They're also only a part of the voodoo mystique--including coins, flowers, candles, an unopened can of beer and a decapitated chicken--that visitors leave at Laveau's last resting place, the Wishing Tomb.

Rock singer Mike Magnette, 30, and his friend Melissa Miller, 25, both of Long Beach, Calif., placed a string of beads on the spot "for good luck. We came to New Orleans to learn more about voodoo, to visit Marie Laveau's tomb," Magnette said.

New Orleans cemeteries--filled with above-the-ground tombs--are so fascinating that the National Park Service has a ranger-led daily walk through St. Louis Number One, the oldest cemetery in the city, established in 1789.

Owned and operated by the Catholic church, St. Louis Number One is in the French Quarter, the 70-block historic area in downtown New Orleans. Although private property, the French Quarter is also part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.

Ranger Jake Garrity, 38, stood at Laveau's tomb, telling visitors the story of the voodoo queen.

"It might seem odd to find a voodoo queen's grave in a Catholic cemetery, but in New Orleans, voodoo brought from Africa and the Caribbean was fused with Catholicism by many members of the church," he explained, adding, "There is always voodoo paraphernalia at Marie's tomb, and often unexpected surprises.

"On three separate occasions, when I led a cemetery walk and stood before her tomb, a calico cat came up and rubbed against my legs. I'm not quite sure what that all means," he said.

Many visitors also troop to Metairie Cemetery, the showplace of New Orleans' graveyard architects. Many of the city's wealthiest families are buried there.

It's also the spot to see Josie Arlington's 1911 red granite tomb. It features a life-size bronze figure of a young woman holding a bouquet of roses in her hands and rapping at the tomb door.

Arlington was New Orleans' most famous madam; she also designed her own tomb. The statue symbolizes one of her standing rules: that a virgin never be permitted to enter her bordello.

The 150-acre immaculately manicured Metairie Cemetery, where several of the modern tombs cost $500,000 to $1 million, is laid out in an oval. That's because it was a race track before it became a cemetery in 1872.

Many who played prominent roles in history are buried in Metairie Cemetery. Here lies William C. Claiborne, Louisiana's first governor. While in Congress, he cast the deciding vote for Thomas Jefferson in the deadlocked 1800 presidential election between Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

In its early years, New Orleans had numerous malaria, yellow fever and cholera epidemics, which accounted for thousands of deaths. Many parts of the city were once cemeteries. The Superdome sits on a former cemetery. When road construction occurs and new structures are built, coffins and human bones often are unearthed.

Above-ground tombs originally were used because New Orleans lies below sea level on a former swamp.

"Floods were common, and the dearly departed would often dearly depart downstream," explained ranger Garrity. "The water was so close to the surface that coffins and bones would pop up and flow through the city during heavy rains. The land has been stabilized for years, but the custom of above-the-ground tombs continues."

New Orleans continues a unique cemetery tradition: unlimited burials in tombs and plots. Families have used the same tombs in many instances for more than 150 years.

"You can put as many relatives, friends or whoever you wish in a single tomb or single grave in New Orleans," explained Johnny Braniff, 66, sexton for the Firemen's Charitable & Benevolent Assn.'s Greenwood Cemetery, founded in 1852.

"When someone dies," he said, "the oldest coffin in a tomb or grave is removed and destroyed. The remains of the dead person in that coffin are put in a body bag in a corner of the tomb or grave."

Many tombs and graves will list all those buried at the site over the years. But on some tombs and graves, families often do not bother to list every name. "It costs money to add each name. The families know who is there. They save money by not inscribing all the names," Braniff said.

At the Sbisa plot in Greenwood Cemetery, for example, there are 23 people listed as being buried in the one grave. The names are on a large upright headstone, on smaller upright headstones and on two headstones lying flat.

There are large "society" tombs where members of organizations are buried. The Swiss society has a tomb, so do the Italian and Portuguese societies, the Elks Club and the New Orleans Typographical Union, and many more.

Many people visit the cemeteries to marvel at the sculptures. One cemetery has a life-size statue of a man holding a copy of his marriage license. His widow had the statue created to let everyone know that, despite gossip to the contrary, they had indeed been lawfully married.

Cypress Grove and Greenwood cemeteries are owned and operated by 340 descendants of the volunteer firemen who organized the Firemen's Charitable & Benevolent Assn. in 1834 and later started the cemeteries. John C. Freese Jr., 44, secretary-treasurer, is the great-grandson of a volunteer fireman. There haven't been volunteer firemen in New Orleans for years.

There are a number of other cemeteries run by organizations in the city.

Tailgate funeral processions following Dixieland jazz bands are another New Orleans cemetery tradition.

But that's another story.

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