Saturday, July 4, 2009

Metairie Cemetery

Enter "cities of the dead" where graves are above the ground. After a quick glance, you'll know why so many vampire movies and books are written with Louisiana as the backdrop and inspiration. Rusty ironwork, bleached tombs, crosses and statues add to the mystery, telling a story that one can only guess.

If you've never been to New Orleans, you might think it's odd that the dead is buried above the ground. There is good reason for this, not just for the decorative tombs, but rather ~ in New Orleans the water table is high and New Orleans is below sea-level elevation. Dig a few feet down and you'll hit water, thus the casket would float ~ literally (and yes, this did happen during Katrina.) One idea was to put holes in the bottom of the coffins so water would enter and sink but (shivers) can you imagine the gurgling sound as a casket is lowered? They opted for the cities instead.

When you look at the cemetery, "cities" seems appropriate for the rows and rows of tombs, resembling homes along a street.

Legend of Metairie Cemetery: Charles Howard was disgruntled with the Metairie Jockey Club, because they refused him membership to the racetrack (he was not blue blood). Charles Howard vowed to one day turn the grounds into a cemetery. After the civil war, because of mismanagement, Charles Howard took his revenge in 1872. The grounds still follow the oval layout. Mr. Howard's tomb is located in the place of the former Jockey Club. When I first saw his tomb, I didn’t realize it was Mr. Howard’s. My first thoughts were, “Wow. It looks like a house!”

There are some tombs with many family names etched in. Ok, are you ready to be freaked out a little? If you don't like the morbid, skip the rest of this paragraph and go to the next one..... The way so many people are buried in one tomb ~ according to an ordinance, if the previous deceased family member has been dead for two years or more, the remains are put into a bag and moved to the back of the vault. Then, the next deceased family member is placed in the tomb. Are you wondering what happens if it's been before 2 years? There's a "holding vault" until the proper time frame is complete.

Wealthy people built these tombs and it looks like there's a "compete with the Jones's" attitude, with so much architectural design it's amazing.. including marble and even stained glass work.

One story ~ Mr. & Mrs. Moriarty were Irish immigrants who worked hard and made good money, but were never accepted into the "social arena." When Mrs. Moriarty passed away, Mr. Moriarty designed their tomb so she could look down on all the people who had snubbed her. Her husband wanted the graces around her tomb and insisted there were four graces (when there are only three - faith, hope and charity, but I suppose his wife could be the 4th). Mrs. Moriarty was older than her husband was and in her will, she stipulated that only her date of death would be inscribed, so nobody would have the satisfaction of knowing the age differences.

Another ahem.. interesting story concerns Josie Arlington. Her life is best known for the four-story mansion boasting bay windows, a tulip-domed cupola, fireplaces in most rooms, works by great artists and... Courtesans. She worked in the red light district. (Prior to her being a Madam, she was known for being a tough woman. She even got into a fistfight with a rival prostitute, biting off part of her lips and ears!)

Josie passed away three years before Storyville was closed down by WWI anti-prostitution regulations. "Storyville" ~ what a name, sin's amusement ride? Though Josie was wealthy and had one of the most elegant and high-class "homes" - she was snubbed by society because of her chosen career. When she learned Metairie Cemetery was to be one of the most impressive cemeteries around, Josie commissioned an architect to design a unique tomb. It had a red door (significance wasn’t lost on the meaning of the color) and has a statue of a young woman touching the door to Josie's resting place.

As with any grave, there are ghost stories and Josie seems to have a host of them ~ ranging from the urns suddenly bursting into flames, a strange eerie glow coming from the tomb and knocking sounds as if the statue of the girl was trying to get in. The story states that Josie would never answer the knock because "no girl had ever lost her virginity at the Arlington." The stories became so wild, of her ghost walking the cemetery grounds, of the statue disappearing and being seen walking that the families who had members buried in the cemetery were afraid... eventually Josie's remains were moved to an "unknown" location. The “tomb property” is now listed to the Morales family.

Tombs of a more recent figure includes Al Copeland's, famous for Popeye’s Fried Chicken and Ruth Fertel of "Ruth Chris Steakhouse." I read that there is a "Culinary History Tour" for local food-related names - Arnaud, Brennan, Broussard, Copelands and Ruth. It's told that Ruth had her tomb built prior to her death and once it was finished, she put up a big white tent and invited her friends and priests to come have a party. That's New Orleans for you – party in a cemetery!

The main tomb I wanted to see was Estelle Theleman Hyamns ~ the despondent angel statue is so sad, so very touching... We were given a map of the cemetery and had to search around a bit, because the map gives you a general “lot” to look for, but there are many tombs per lot. This one was located at the very back, as if the family knew it was so special, that you would have to go out of your way to find it…and you would. Greg found the tomb and called out my name. (Have I mentioned that it’s eerie to hear your name being called out in a cemetery?)

He told me it was spooky with the blue light shining from the stained glass. I watched as he opened the doors, which are often locked, this day happened to be unlocked. We walked inside and though I’m only showing two pictures in this post, I took many different points of view shots, which are in my Picasa. I think this angel is the most beautiful of all that I saw, because of her sense of loss with her draping over a coffin. Later I read a different opinion of the angel’s position: "She isn't dejected, she's touching her head down with the morning light because she stood guard all night." It's a wonderful and sad place to visit, an odd combination, I know.

We drove around and took more pictures. I didn’t write in this blog post the funny things that Greg said in the cemetery, but I did put them as comments under some of the pictures in Picasa. I like that he was willing to go to the cemetery with me and helped me find the various ones I wanted to visit. Even though, I know he thinks it’s a little freaky. (Now you know the freak in me!)

Greg said, “I wonder if Sheriff Harry Lee is buried here.” I had the phone number to Metairie Cemetery and I called. They gave us directions, as best they could, to locate it and sure enough ~ we found it. Sheriff Harry Lee was a great leader for Jefferson Parish, where we live. There is a tomb for the Schwegmann’s family too. (sort of looks like a simple grocery store front). Mahalia Jackson’s tomb is also located in Metairie Cemetery.

Though you can “tour” through the cemetery (or walk a dog or go for a jog) through the main “streets” ~ I liked walking and finding the more tucked away tombs. The angels are poignant and beautiful, the stain glass work ~ a reflection of hope… all sorts of things you might be surprised to find, even a pyramid tomb and crying dogs.

Before we left, we went to the front of the funeral home, where there is a statue of the weeping soldier. If you want to see more pictures, please click here. (Note, towards the middle of the group of pictures is where you’ll find the older, more elaborate tombs.)


Lauren said...

You ALWAYS write the most interesting stories and posts. I probably could listen to you talk all day and night. However, i can't go to the cemetery. There is a road, the interboro (or Jackie Robinson) near where I live. It goes through the numerous cemeteries -- of which there are so many in NYC, and it's eerie. I can feel the nothingness. I literally get this feeling. Once when taking the bus to another train station I had never been to before, we passed another cemetery (surprise surprise) and I got the same feeling. It's just so odd for me. I do get the importance and idea that others find it interesting and I too like reading about it, but I just can't be there. Weird?

Lilly said...

Finally, I couldnt access yur blog through IE. I have changed to Firefox.

How interesting is your cemetry. I have to say I love looking at cemetries. The headstones, the ages, causes of death. I have never seen raised plots like those but with good reason.

And the blue tinged angel - just sad and beautiful at the same time.


Kavi said...

A cemetry ! Phew ~! that was both artistic & intense!

Statue of the weeping soldier held my attention for sometime ! Our cultures are indeed different. but the essence is in relating to you !

Lovely. As usual

Ugich Konitari said...

What an interesting post. And it's got me thinking.

Go ahead to the year 2121, and all these "monuments" will be toured by tourists visiting Metairie, with tour guides explaining the lifestyle 100 years ago. Having "solid" monuments tells you so much about the people. Which is why Greece has so much history. In my religion , the custom is to cremate. Folks classified as "great" have memorials built, and future folks will study these.

I guess the cemetries like in Metairie , really represent the normal citizenry...

Joanna Jenkins said...

That was fascinating! I'd never heard any of those stories or about graves being above ground. The photos are beautiful and heartfelt with such sadness. You could almost see the stone figures weeping.
Thanks for sharing!

WishTrish said...

I LOVED THIS POST! Thanks for stopping by to visit me today. I appreciate visitors and comments so much!

I love all of the info on this City of the Dead. I totally want to visit. I was so intrigued about the fourth muse, that I did a search for it. Here is what I found on Wikipedia:

"There are a number of possible origins for the name "Morella". It is the name of the Venerable Mother Juliana Morell (1595-1653), who was the fourth Grace and tenth Muse in a poem by poet Lope de Vega.[3] "

I couldn't find the said poem. Apparently the author was Spanish, and the interpreted works of his, did not include anything of a fourth grace. Perhaps someday I'll see it and let you know. ;)

I looked at your picasa album. It's wonderful!

DysFUNctional Mom said...

I love cemeteries and I love this post! Fascinating. I want to visit New Orleans one day, it's one of my dreams!

LindsRay said...

These are so deliciously creepy! I love the pictures and the information!

Cherie said...

I really love cemetaries and this one looks so cool! Lots of neat stories.

I have never been to New Orleans but a dozen years ago my husband had a business trip there and he was so intrigued by the above ground cemetaries that he bought a postcard to show one to me.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this link, but argg it seems to be offline... Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please answer to my message if you do!

I would appreciate if a staff member here at could post it.


Aleta said...

Sorry about that, Peter. I changed the name of the Picasa folder and when I did so, I didn't know at the time that it made the link invalid. The link should be working, but if it isn't, try this:

I would have emailed you, but you posted anonymous instead of logging in. Hopefully you'll check back for the info.