Monday, July 04, 2005

New Orleans

Melina's Diary

Hey, I'm getting around, aren't I?

On Friday I left from work and drove down to visit a friend in New Orleans. The first part of the three-hour drive was pretty dull - after you get out of the uninspiring south Jackson outskirts (mechanics' shops, down-home restaurants), there are just rolling hills and alternating fields and forests. But about half an hour south of the Louisiana border, things start to look strange. The land drops away. The divided highway, two or three lanes each way, becomes a permanent, wide double bridge. Thirty or forty feet below is the swamp/marsh/bayou, going on for miles and miles. Sometimes there are just a few dead trees every fifty yards or so, sticking up out of the muck, and sometimes it's a whole swampy forest. The highway goes through at about tree height so you feel like you are driving through the canopy of a rain forest. As you drive by, you see below and beside you whole marsh civilizations - the people who live in houses on stilts on the little clumps of land that have become more-or-less solid over the centuries. The houses are mostly wood, because bricks of course would sink into the swamp. (The entire city of New Orleans, as a matter of fact, is sinking into the swamp.) They have rusting tin roofs, tin lean-tos, front yards full of colorful things they make useful somehow. They have no cars that I could see -- just boats.

At one point, I drove by a little SUV parked on the shoulder of the highway, all four doors and the trunk open. A family with little kids had gotten out and were assembling what looked to be a net on a forty foot pole. They didn't seem to think this was dangerous, the kids running around on the shoulder of the highway. Evidently, they were going to reach down with the net forty feet, into the water, and scoop something good to eat out of the swamp. I couldn't imagine that that would work very well, but what did I know?

The sun was going down, the radio was playing the blues, and a pink mist was settling over the swamp when I drove into New Orleans.

The most interesting places I saw were the ghoulish old cemeteries, of which there are many in that city. They are striking looking, because they are not really underground. They are stone monuments built up above ground, so instead of burying a body you slide it into a drawer in your tomb and seal it up, as if it were a filing cabinet and you were locking it. However, the truly unusual feature of these cemeteries was their process of, shall we say, temporary burial. Basically, if you have a space in one of these posh cemeteries you are a very cool person who has been in town a long time. The real estate is hot in demand, and the caretakers discourage selling your tomb out of the family, and will actually threaten to sue you if your family tries to sell your family plot. But even assuming you love your little ancestral tomb, you only own a certain amount of spaces there. So what do you do once three relatives have died and your spaces are all filled up?

Most people would say, oh well, I guess that's that, and buy another plot for their loved one somewhere else. But in New Orleans? Hell no. (They tell you on the tours that the following is a traditional Catholic custom but somehow I missed all these when I went to Spain.) Once your relative has been in his drawer for the period of one year and one day, you are perfectly entitled to crack open the drawer he is lying in and get him out again. How does this work, do you ask? Well, having your body in the proper kind of wooden casket above ground for a year in New Orleans is apparently like being slowly cremated. After a year and a day, there's not much left to you. ("What about embalming?" asked one tourist at this point in the shpiel. The tour guide laughed. "Well, that works for a while, but then it wears off.") So what the cemetery care takers do after this year (or ten years, or whatever) has expired is they go in, open your drawer, shoo away the cockroaches, and start sorting out disintegrated bones from disintegrated shards of wooden casket. (The tour guide at this point said, in all seriousness, "If any of you come across a bone fragment while wandering around the cemetery, please tell us. We will make sure it is handled correctly.") They throw out your casket pieces, and put all your bone pieces in a garbage bag. Then, depending on the wishes of the family, they either put you in a big envelope and mail you back to wherever your relatives live (tour guide: "before 9/11, we didn't even label them 'biohazard', just double bagged them and sent them UPS!"), or they put your plastic bag in the bottom and rear of your filing cabinet so that the new relative can be put in. (Tour guide: "You'd better like your relatives if you get buried like this, because your bones and theirs are going to be all mixed up together!")

Humorously enough, at the back of one of the biggest of these cemeteries (St. Louis #1) there is a section for Protestants. And wouldn't you know it, those boring old Protestants just have normal headstones and seem to be buried under normal grass in normal dirt -- permanently. This strikes me as a far more restful system.

Anyway, it was a very interesting lecture but a somewhat nervewracking day - all the guide books say, "don't go into cemeteries alone, even in broad daylight, because the tombs are perfect cover for muggers!" so me and my friend, another small, unintimidating Jewish girl, were in this semi-paranoid state reading tombstones, looking for bone fragments, and listening for muggers who might have been hiding behind any of the tombs. But no muggers appeared.

Preservation is a big problem in these cemeteries. Many tombs are just in terrible condition and have been covered with graffiti and their statues stolen and sold to antiques dealers. In Lafayette cemetery they have filmed lots of fun movies but the movie-makers are not even allowed to go NEAR those that still have original statuary attached to them.

And bone pieces, apparently, might be anywhere.


At 7:25 AM, Blogger melinama said...

Wow, no wonder Anne Rice has lived across from one of these cemeteries all these years. I saw them once but I didn't know residence was so temporary. Around here, up in Vermont in the land of no cellphone signal, it's the same way with your pencil, or your coffeecup. If you put it down somewhere, people will leave it there for a while, but then they'll just take it away.

Thanks for keeping my blog fed, my dear!

At 9:16 AM, Blogger kenju said...

I love these mini-history and travel lectures! Keep them coming, please.

At 1:01 PM, Blogger EdWonk said...

Great synopsis of the burial process. We've been in New Orleans many times (We like to stay at a small hotel right off Bourbon) and it's never boring. (Matter of fact, both the WifeWonk and TeenWonk consider New Orleans second only to Quebec City as their North American favorites.) For years, Ann Rice's home phone number was semi-public and she would always leave the most entertaining and fun messages recorded on her machine for fans.

At 11:31 PM, Blogger melina said...

Ooh, I like quebec city too. It's a little tourist-ified but I guess that's what it takes to keep the buildings from falling down!

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Alex Lint said...

I'm a New Orleanian by birth (though I've lived outside the city for several years) and, yes, my family has a tomb -- actually three -- in the cemeteries.

Does three sound weird? It's not. My father's family -- his parents and uncles and aunts -- have one. It's pretty plain, with just a couple of last names inscribed on a raised mound. On the other hand, my mother had one tomb from her father's side and another from her mother's side -- which came in pretty handy, since her parents didn't get along. Today, my maternal grandparents are buried in two different cemeteries across the street from one another.

My favorite is my maternal grandmother's tomb. Due to one of those accidents of family, it has passed down in the maternal line for several generations, leading to a group of maybe four or five different surnames on the different inscriptions. I hope that if I die someday on a visit to New Orleans, I'll be buried in that one, which has the name Denis McCarthy on it. Denis was -- what? -- my grandmother's great great uncle? Something like that. I think he came to New Orleans during the potato famine.

You don't have to be rich to have a tomb in New Orleans. You just have to have a family that's been around for awhile.

I've always loved the New Orleans cemeteries. The biggest ones are so large that you need to know the precise street corners within the cemeteries to find your tombs. My mother used to take me there occasionally "to visit the relatives", and she taught all of us, my siblings and cousins, to drive there. They're kind of ideal for the purpose -- like miniature cities, but with less traffic, and the houses are all pretty indestructible at ten miles an hour.

Katrina, of course, has affected all of us. My cousins and siblings and I have communicated by email and we plan to inspect the tombs the next time one of us visits town. We've agreed to pitch in together for whatever repairs might be necessary. Life -- and death, I guess -- goes on.

At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re comment by Alex Lint: I ran across your comments about Denis McCarthy and was interested in knowing more about the names on the tomb in New Orleans and it's location. I have a great great grandfather whose name was Denis McCarthy and who also came to New Orleans from either Ireland or France. It could be the same person. It's a long shot with a comment this old but I hope you will come across this post and respond.


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