NEW ORLEANS—With all of its intercultural charm, New Orleans is a feast for the eyes. Millions flock to the city and our impressed with the design of the cemeteries. Recently, The Historic New Orleans Collection launched The New Orleans Cemetery Database.
“Howard Margo is a curator at THNOC and says, people were writing about our cemeteries in the early 19th century. Travelers from Europe and other parts of the world. They were an attraction then and they continue to be. We had to do our part to keep them going.”
It’s hard to describe the appearance of them. When going east, driving down Interstate ten, past exit 231, the “city of the dead” seems to grow out of the ground. As you continue on into Treme, they tombs are closer. Soon, you can’t help but park the car and see how they are adorned with lithophytic ferns as deadly nigh shade plants grow out of the cracks that align the sidewalk.
The oldest of the city’s cemeteries is St Louis Cemetery Number One and it dates back to 1789. Alfred Lemmon is the Director of the Williams Research Center at the Historic New Orleans Collection. When he first began employment at THNOC, he was assigned to the cemetery project. He like others were up for a monumental task that was rigorous, time sensitive and dangerous.
“What struck me was the urgency of the project. These tombs and cemeteries were endangered by the climate, the weather, institutions and vandals. Cemeteries were not a safe place to visit. We actually needed police detail to guard us during the project,” says Lemmon.
As the years continue to pass, tombs would sink and every cemetery has examples of nameless burials. The Database was ten years in the making and a collaboration with The New Orleans Catholic Archdiocese, Tulane University’s School of Architecture, Save Our Cemeteries, The University of Pennsylvania’s Historic Preservation Program and Gambrel & Peak Historic Preservation Consulting. All of them, wanted to preserve the thousands of tombs of historic figures and hundreds of years of history, preserved in the tombs of the “City of the Dead.”
Howard Margot is well-versed in the history of the cemeteries and points out that some of the nameless vaults are due to yellow fever epidemics from the past, where too many died and were buried quickly. Then there are less grim highlights of history as St. Louis Number Two is considered to be the largest monument of African Americans in the country.
The cemeteries are alike to the catacombs of Paris or the tombs of Egypt’s Pharaohs, in that they are iconic. However, New Orleans’ tombs are not the only tombs that have above-ground structures. Père Lachaise Cemetery in France and the Necrópolis Cristóbal Colón in Cuba, among others, also have above ground structures. This is a style that originates in Europe. However, there is a functionality with New Orleans’s above ground styling. The bodies are above ground along with the structures, because of the high water table, which is partly what makes New Orleans’ cemeteries unique.
Another feature of the cemeteries is that hundreds of years, passed their construction, there’s still room for bodies. Heather Veneziano is the Director of Public Engagement and Development for New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries and also part of Gambrel & Peak Historic Preservation Consulting. She spends many a time at St. Louis Cemetery Number One worked extensively on the cemetery database project.
“We are the original green cemetery model, where you can continue to use tombs in perpetuity as long as long as they’re in good condition. The way our tombs work, is that multiple interments can happen. The original remains are bundled up, placed to the rear or in a place called the caveau. Generations of the same family can be interred in the same tomb,” says Heather Veneziano.
The database launched in 2021 and it’s already serving as Heather Veneziano says, “we just had a woman who saw a genealogy workshop in the fall and lives in California. Using the database, she was able to find her ancestors interred in our cemetery. Just knowing that within the short time that the database has been live, we have such success. We are going to be able to bring people back to knowing where and who they came from; it makes our ministry worth while!”