Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New Orleans Cemetery History Tour

Yesterday afternoon I took a walking tour that began in the French Quarter of New Orleans and then proceeded to the oldest cemetery in the city, with burials dating back to the 1700s. I learned that New Orleans and New York City at one time vied for the number one population in what would become the United States. The original inhabitants of New Orleans were explorers and then the misfits from continental Europe ... prisoners, debtors, women of ill repute and the like (think the origins of Australia and you are close to the first settlers of New Orleans).

One of the most fascinating parts of the cemetery tour was learning that in New Orleans a cemetery never "reaches capacity." There are regularly interments yet, more than three hundreds years later, in the diocesan cemetery we visited. Everyone is buried above ground, since the city is at or below sea level. Once a body is interred in the tomb it must remain there undisturbed for one year and one day. After that time arrangements can be made for another body to be placed there. The remains of the previous inhabitant are simply swept together, placed in a bag and moved to the back of the site. Some families have ten or fifteen generations of folks buried in the very same crypt space, which is rather eerie when you think about it.

The grave of Marie LaVeau is the most famous one in the cemetery we visited. Her history is rather obscure, but her reputation as a Voodoo queen is large. No one really knows how she acquired the fame she has (she has become much more famous in death than she ever was in life), but our tour guide hinted that her fame was grown as steadily as has tourism for New Orleans (tourism is the city's number one industry). Tradition says that when you come to Marie LaVeau's tomb, you stand before it, mark three Xs on the tomb, turn around three times while making a wish and knock on the vault ... and the wait for your wish to be realized. It's an interesting legend, and there are plenty of Xs scribbled on the tomb, plus many gifts that have been dropped there.

I neglected to mention earlier that the tour departed from an interesting voodoo shop. The small shop is filled with all kinds of animistic objects from various countries making promises ... ranging from virility to health to attraction. There are tarot cards, blessed chicken's feet and all kinds of trinkets. I didn't stay in the store long, and I didn't bother to identify myself as a clergyperson, either. (Not that anyone was asking).

The second important grave in the cemetery is currently unmarked. It belongs to Homer Plessy, whose case Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896) established the specious doctrine in the post-Civil War era of "separate but equal." It was Plessy who pressed the issue that his constitutional rights were infringed because he was denied the opportunity to sit where he wished on the New Orleans street car that he had entered. Within the past year the faceplate of his tomb crumbled (it is currently in safekeeping, I understand), but it has not been replaced. Sad testimony to the life of someone whose legal case initiated what would become in the following seventy years the Civil Rights movement and legislation of our country.

The French Quarter is a fascinating place, most of which was not permanently damaged by the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (there was standing water for a period of time, but not for nearly as long as other areas in New Orleans). It is filled with reminders that New Orleans is party town USA. As Claudia and I were heading to the airport this morning on the shuttle (it picked us up at 5:00 AM) we passed a couple of bars in the Quarter where beer was still flowing freely and scantily clad women were clinging to more expensively dressed men. Needless to say, when Claudia and I ate lunch yesterday at 11:00 AM and dinner at 5:00 PM we received excellent service and great food because we were the only ones in the restaurants in question.

I type these reflections as I sit in the DFW Airport awaiting our flight to Minneapolis. It has been an enjoyable three days. Once I am home I will add to this blog entry several of the pictures I shot yesterday on my tour.

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