An old New Orleans custom
A funeral car from an 1852 New Orleans funeral procession honoring three out-of-state political figures: Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster
Over the centuries, this city has raised the staging of funerals to an art form. And, not even a corpse is required.
New Orleans, then a Spanish colony, once held a funeral when the King of Spain died. Charles III succumbed December 14, 1788, but news did not reach here until early 1789. According to historian Charles Gayarre’s mid-19th century “History of Louisiana,” “On the 7th of May, the usual funeral rites were performed in New Orleans in honor of departed royalty, with as much pomp and solemnity as the finances of the colony could afford.”
Funerals in early New Orleans were grandiose affairs, even if the deceased might have wanted something more simple: Don Andres Almonester (father of Micaela Pontalba, who built the buildings on either side of Jackson Square) died suddenly April 25, 1798.
According to Christina Vella’s “Intimate Enemies” biography of his daughter, Almonester’s will specifically requested that alms were to be given to 200 poor persons who attended his funeral. His executors were instructed to take roll at the event “in order that presence may not be falsely pretended on the part of some.” Almonester also asked to be buried in a plot behind the charity hospital, but King Charles IV of Spain ordered his body to be entombed in more grandeur inside St. Louis Cathedral, which Almonester had paid to rebuild.
One early Orleanian did not have to pay people to show up for her funeral. Marie Laveau Glapion, known primarily as a voodoo practitioner, died June 16, 1881 and, according to The Picayune, at her funeral the next afternoon “her remains were followed to the grave by a large concourse of people, the most prominent and the most humble joining in paying their last respects to the dead.”
When Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, died in New Orleans, his funeral cortege on December 11, 1889, also drew a crowd. An estimated 200,000 people lined the streets while the hearse passed. Davis was first buried in Metairie Cemetery, then later reinterred in Richmond, Virginia. There was a viewing of his corpse at Gallier Hall for the days between his death and his funeral. Ironically, during this same time period, the Washington Artillery (a local military unit that had served in the Confederate army) was sponsoring a concert series with the visiting brass band of Patrick S. Gilmore, who had previously been brought to New Orleans with his musicians by the occupying Union Army during the Civil War.
Perhaps the oddest funeral ceremony in New Orleans was a procession and church services held December 9,1852 in honor of three recently deceased American figures: John C. Calhoun, staunch defender of slavery from South Carolina; Daniel Webster, statesman and orator from New England; and Henry Clay, the “great compromiser” from Kentucky, whose political life was dedicated to staving off national conflict over slavery.
All three men had died elsewhere, but Orleanians decided to honor them here anyway. Everyone in town – politicians, the legal establishment, military units, benevolent societies, workmen’s associations, school children and orphans – began the parade at six in the evening on December 9, 1852. The starting point was Lafayette Square and the entire assembly, accompanied by bands, marched to the French Quarter and back. Urns honoring each man were to be placed in a cenotaph (rather like a large gravestone without a grave) in Lafayette Square, and a religious service was held for each in a different church.
Their graves may have been elsewhere, but each has a namesake uptown thoroughfare: Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Webster are still lined up as streets beginning at the river just downtown from Audubon Park.
You are welcomed to second-line on them anytime, with or without a funeral.