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.