I recently came across that post when searching for some photographs and had the realization that, despite my promise at the end of it, I had not posted any of the pictures Nicholas took or discussed any of the fun facts I learned while writing the guide. I'm happy to exhibit a little follow through, even if it's late in coming. It is actually well-timed as a recent move north has occasioned no little amount of homesickness on my part. I eagerly take the opportunity to write about my beloved adopted hometown until I can rejoin her and heal this New Orleans-shaped hole in my heart.
First, get the historic lay of the land by following this link to see an 1863 map of New Orleans. Click at the very center of the map for a close-up view and you will see Canal Street radiating northwest off of the Mississippi River (this is distinct from and above the more immediately visible "New Canal"). Trace Canal Street up into the cypress swamps and you will see that the street terminated at a racetrack and a plot of ground simply labeled "graveyard". In the early part of the 19th-century, prior to the creation of this map, a potter's field (cemetery for the indigent), at least one Jewish cemetery and several society cemeteries occupied plots of land in this area. It is unclear to me whether (1) the single word "graveyard" is meant to indicate all of these cemeteries, or (2) this map was based on an earlier map, when the land had been purchased by the societies and congregations, but only the potter's field was actively being used. In any event, this map gives one a good indication of how relatively remote these cemeteries were at their inception.
As in the 19th-century, you can still ride the Canal streetcar from the river to its termination at Metairie Road. These days the cypress swamps are gone. You will instead see a grand commercial boulevard give way to blocks of more residential, sometimes ill-repaired, but often still-stately buildings. Those in turn give way to a half-dozen cemeteries; park-like and quiet, a few decaying and sequestered, others open and serene, all of them crowded together along with the Hope Mausoleum, an austere art deco edifice constructed in 1931, whose marble corridors stay invitingly cool even in the middle of an intense south Louisiana summer. (Photo below by Scott Webb. View his photo blog here.)
Which reminds me: we tackled this project during the middle of summer. It was, obviously, hot and humid, but we came prepared with water, sunscreen and a high tolerance (dare I say love? yes) for heat. Live oak trees also grow in several of the cemeteries providing periodic shade as we took our notes and pictures, walking up and down the rows of tombs (distinct from headstones - tombs are not simply markers of a burial, but contain the burial).
We were charged with writing up/photographing only a portion of the cemeteries that now crown Canal Street. St. Patrick No. 1 is administered by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and nearby Metairie Cemetery, which stands on the site of the former racetrack mentioned above*, is owned and administered by a private company. The remainder - the Charity Hospital, Gates of Prayer, Cypress Grove, Odd Fellows Rest and Greenwood Cemeteries - do have some society and, in the case of Gates of Prayer, congregational affiliations, but require the help of Save Our Cemeteries for preservation and promotional purposes. These were the five cemeteries upon which Nicholas and I focused.
Below is my triumphant Paint map where I have labeled all but the Charity Hospital Cemetery. For added clarity: Greenwood stretches above Metairie Road, out of the picture plain. Cypress Grove is the long, four-rowed tract that reaches down and touches I-10. Odd Fellows Rest is the tiny triangular-shaped plot in the armpit of Canal Street and Metairie Road. Gates of Prayer, peculiarly-shaped, lies perpendicular to Canal Street (as opposed to oblique, like Cypress Grove) and has a row of live oaks living along its entrance.
Charity Hospital, but also the interment on its cemetery site of many of the storm's unclaimed victims. The spot retains the Charity Hospital Cemetery gate (below), but now also serves as a memorial to that scarring event.
In the case of Cypress Grove and Greenwood, the society in question is the Fireman's Charitable and Benevolent Association, which bought both plots of land in the mid-19th century and continues to own and administer the cemeteries. At the Association's inception, New Orleans' fire department was a volunteer service. I venture to guess it probably also had a higher mortality rate than some other volunteer activities, rendering assistance with funeral costs an appealing benefit to membership. These days you don't need to be a fireman to be buried in Cypress Grove or Greenwood - you just need the money for a plot - but you can certainly find a good number of firemen interred in both cemeteries, their tombs identifiable by the fire trucks and other fire-fighting accoutrements that grace them.
Greenwood is some 150 acres and well-maintained. Against its fence that lines Metairie Road, it displays a collection of very imposing, very recognizable tombs, including one topped by the figure of a firefighter and another mounted by a nearly life-sized elk. Frankly, Greenwood gets a lot of attention and is not nearly so quirky or interesting as the other Canal cemeteries, so I am going to pass over it in favor of Cypress Grove, some pictures of which follow.
The main walkway, disappearing toward Basin Street (and, less glamorously, I-10) in the distance:
Along a parallel walkway, stands the unadorned Soon on Tong tomb, identified by Chinese characters and the English words “Chinese Cemetery”. The Soon on Tong tomb dates to 1904 and originally served as the temporary resting site for Chinese New Orleanians before their remains were shipped back to China:
Across the street from Cypress Grove Cemetery, next to an "herbal" smoke shop-cum-coffee bar, Odd Fellows Rest Cemetery huddles behind a high wall. Incidentally, it also contains an even more ornate rusty orange cast iron tomb:
Odd Fellows Rest was dedicated in 1849 by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.), an organization that, improbably to my ears, exists still. In the SOC Canal Cemeteries guide, I called Odd Fellows "charming and eclectic," a description I stand by.
This is my favorite cemetery in New Orleans for its diminutive size, the uniqueness and artfulness of many of its tombs and for its verdant landscaping, concerted and incidental. Tribute to the former is a lovely, large citrus tree planted on a slight, undoubtedly man-made hill. The latter is represented by numerous live oaks that have broken the footing of tombs, dislodged chunks of concrete, grown around iron fences as though liquid:
And by plants that emerge from simply every possible crevice of the wall vaults, pathways and tombs:
Of course, this coin-like duality of the aesthetic decay of human creation and nature's indomitable fluorescence occurs all over New Orleans. However, it is on special display in Odd Fellows Rest where the cemetery backdrop, I think, provides an added commentary on the evanescence and vulnerability of all things human.
One of the largest tombs in Odd Fellows is the I.O.O.F. society tomb:
The ornate tablet at its center depicts a mother-child pair wreathed by a number of I.O.O.F. symbols whose meanings seem alchemical or zodiacal in their obscurity:
In addition to this society tomb, you can find in Odd Fellows a couple of Woodmen of the World tombs shaped, prosaically, like tree stumps. It also contains a precast concrete tomb that looks like a gingerbread house, a tiny grave marker adorned only by a water spigot, and an awkward but appealing relief bust of society founder and prison reformer, John Howard. As small as Odd Fellows Rest is, the arrangement of tombs and trees creates a "vignette" effect not dissimilar to that cultivated in classical Chinese gardens. There is no single spot from which you may see the entirety of the space. As you move through the cemetery, each turn provides a new, unexpected and lovely vantage point. I always notice a new detail when I visit.
The last cemetery on our blog tour is Gates of Prayer. This Jewish burial ground abuts two relatively peculiar buildings. At the left, you have a mansion built in 1872 that was saved from utter dilapidation when some entrepreneur or other repurposed it as an event hall. At right, a dead end street paved with cobblestones, called Bottinelli Place, stretches away from Canal Street and ends with a three-story Italianate hybrid confection built by Teddy Bottinelli, in homage to his sculptor father, during the 1970s using stone and architectural details painstakingly brought to New Orleans from the Old Country.
Here you can see the paving stones on the street and a side view of the strange cupolaed building:
And here you can see how it punctuates the area all around it:
Gates of Prayer, established in 1846 as the Dispersed of Judah Cemetery, was renamed in the 1930s. Like Teddy Bottinelli's architectural dream that watches over it, Gates of Prayer accumulated more than it was created; the gate over its entrance declaring "Chevra Thilim Cemetery Assn" once stood on a side street and led to one of the many cemeteries annexed to achieve the present-day layout of Gates of Prayer.
A number of details distinguish Gates of Prayer from other New Orleans cemeteries. First, the interments here occurred below ground, so you will find grave stones rather than tombs. Next, all of the grave markers face the same direction - southeast. I have not been able to determine the reason, but this contrasts with most other New Orleans cemeteries where the tombs are arrayed more like houses on the city's notoriously aperpendicular streets and can face each other or sit at oblique angles to one another. Perhaps obviously, most of the grave stones also feature at least a portion of their inscription in Hebrew. Finally, while you will find the occasional urn or weeping willow common in Christian funerary symbolism, and even several Masonic symbols, you will also find a host of images specific to Judaic tradition, like menorahs:
Stars of David:
Or a pair of hands denoting a kohanim family:
Harry Offner was a local business-owner and onetime president of the non-profit, Lighthouse for the Blind. His tombstone replicates that organization’s lighthouse-shaped building which still stands at 734 Camp Street in New Orleans' Central Business District.
That building itself was modeled after the Milneburg lighthouse which used to stand at the Pontchartrain lakefront:
many other events in its history, in a field at the end of Elysian Fields:
Abe Shushan was a prominent New Orleans businessman as well as a close confidante of Huey P. Long. As president of the Orleans Levee Board, Shushan lobbied for and built the gloriously deco New Orleans Lakefront Airport.
Originally known as the Shushan Airport Terminal Complex, Shushan’s name was removed from the structure when he, like many, was drawn into the controversy surrounding Long and his political finances. In eloquent illustration of the man's hubris and of the city's desire to erase his association with the airport, Shushan's initials graced tiles, bathroom fixtures and so many other architectural details that it took years and thousands of dollars to literally remove his name from the structure. Shushan was convicted of tax evasion in 1939 and served some time in prison, but was later pardoned by President Truman. The airport retains its Shushan-less identity.
And that humorous yet sad story brings me to the end of our tour. I urge anyone whoever has the remotest opportunity of doing so to visit New Orleans, visit a New Orleans cemetery, visit any cemetery. You can learn a lot about the living there.
I wish I had a better way to wrap this up, but perhaps an abrupt and unprefaced ending suits a topic like cemeteries, so many of whose symbols involve broken, interrupted or cut things.
*In fact, one of the pathways through Metairie Cemetery echoes the oval racetrack.