For the most pragmatic of reason – a high water table – New Orleans has elected to make for itself the most prosaic of folk art, the reconciliation of beauty and death that has kept philosophers and artists in ink and oils forever. And, to one degree or another, eluded both groups.
You need be neither to have a feeling for the folk art of New Orleans cemeteries. Just being barely award of the incredible cross-currents that make us America’s Most Interesting City will suffice rather nicely.
The tombs selected for this article have no special architectural or culture significance. They just spoke to me of humans over whom history has lightly spread its wings. French, Anglo, African, Irish and Italian, each one shared with New Orleans the gifts of his life and now graces it with his grave…
“…agreeable unto Roman practice to bury by highways, whereby their monuments are under eye; memorials of themselves and mementoes of mortality unto living passengers; whom the epitaphs of great ones were fain to beg to stay and look upon them”
-Sir Thomas Brown, Urn Burial
St. Louis Cemetery II sits in uneasy decay between a housing project and elevated highway 610, used by those fleeing that project to the suburbs.
Dominique You is buried in St. Louis II and Dominique was sort of in between things himself, a transition between Old World New Orleans and New World New Orleans.
But it’s hard to imagine Dominique You fleeing change. He stayed and faced it with courage and humor, even while his associated fled to Cartagena and Campeche. H was a hero to his city, and if that city sometimes forgot his heroism, they remembered it when the time came to bury him and they buried him in glory.
Dominique was born Alexander Frederic Laffite in Haiti, the oldest of eight children who would include more famous siblings, Jean and Pierre. He took an alias when he became a privateer, prowling the Gulf and Caribbean in search of Spanish treasure ships.
Short and swarthy, Dominique had shoulders twice as broad as the average man and scars from powder burns on his face. Yet despite a flaming temper and ferocious appearance, he was good-natured and likable.
He survived countless combats as a privateer and smuggler, but his crowning deeds came during the Battle of New Orleans, as one of the Baratarian “banditti” recruited reluctantly by Andrew Jackson for defense of the city.
On three separate days, an artillery battery commanded by Dominique played a key role in beating back British attacks. Once, during an inspection of his positions, General Jackson came upon the Baratarians brewing coffee. “That smells better than the coffee we get,” remarked the general. “Did you smuggle it in?”
“Maybe so, general,” grinned Dominique, handing the general a cup.
Jackson would later tell is aides that if ordered to storm the gates of hell with Dominique as his lieutenant, he would have “no misgivings of the results.”
Unlike his brothers and most fellow buccaneers, Dominique stayed in New Orleans after the war, even thought the days of French ascendancy over the city were already beginning to be numbered. He operated a tavern at the end of St. Anne Street, happily at first. But his old wounds began to affect his health, and he died a tortured and impoverished death in 1830.
He was buried in a simple, single vault, clear as the sun, a stepped top tomb with an elevated parapet facade. The epitaph, in French, would have won Roman approval: “Intrepid warrior on land and sea in a hundred combats showed his valor. This new bayard without reproach or fear could have witnessed the ending of the world without trembling.”
Dominique was buried with full military honors. When the last gun had been fired, a little group of fellow Masons circled around the tomb. The leader gave a little oration and then each man in the circle slowly filed by the tomb, dropped a sprig of evergreen and said: “Alas, My brother!”
“Farewell, General Lee. I wish for your sake and mine that every damn Yankee on earth was sunk 10 miles in hell!”
-Member of the Army of Northern Virginia to his commander on the day of surrender, 1865
The New Orleans tribute to the Louisiana Division of that unforgettable army is in Metairie Cemetery, the natural focus of the most beautiful and ornate of all the city cemeteries. Yet it has strangely little ornamentation. It stands without flamboyance, radiating a sadness appropriate to its symbolism.
Eight young palm trees cast their quiet shadows on the grass-covered tumulus, which is surmounted by a 38-foot granite column. Atop the column is a nine-foot statue of General “Stonewall” Jackson, sculpted by Orleanian Achille Perelli. Jackson’s right hand is on the hilt of his unsheathed sword, but his gaze is impenetrable and downward …
Downward to the men, the men who fill the 57 vaults in the mausoleum beneath the mound. A wrought-iron fence keeps them safe now, except from the water drip of the low ceiling.
Above the portal is the only epitaph and it is ironically taken from Swinton’s “History of the Army of the Potomoc,” the story of the Federal Army that opposed this one. “Incomparable infantry,” the epitaph calls them, who “carried the revolt on their bayonets,” and which, “vital in all its parts, died only with its annihilation.”
But all its men did not die the day the army did. You can stand outside the wrought-iron fence and read some of their names: John Gillion, Thomas Day, Peyton Lynch, Julian Levy, Thomas Higgins, T.C. McQuithey. Men who sought a new nation in the cradle of another, men whose sense of duty did not hold them to the union, but to something much, much older …
These were the men who comprised an army made for defeat and incomparably greater in that than triumph. Did the experience of it help its old soldiers in the face of life’s final setback? And then did skies tremble, as when kings and heroes die?
No. They came home, Lynch and Levy, Gillion and Day, and with “ax or saw or plough or pen” played out their mortality and left us a memory.
In 1889, Jefferson Davis died. He lay in state for three days in the old City Hall and then was borne to Metairie, where he was buried in the tomb of the Army of Northern Virginia. He remained there for two years before being transferred to a Richmond graveyard.
The Davis funeral was a huge occasion for the city. All the old generals showed up and the cortege was both long and slow, taking nearly three hours to reach the cemetery. Jam-packed streetcars followed alongside and when the procession reached the gravesite, there were 10,000 people waiting.
“They buried the Confederacy today,” one witness wrote.
In a beautiful spot. Right in Metairie Cemetery.
“And nothing we can call our own but Death”
-William Shakespeare, “Richard II?
There are many other fine things to see and think about Metairie Cemetery. One is the towering monument in memory of Ensign Hugh Aiken, an impressive shaft pink Tennessee marble beautifully entwined with a morning glory vine carved in high relief.
The man who carved that vine is himself buried far away and far differently. Go to St. Louis II, to the row of less-affluent “oven” tombs along the Bienville Street wall and squint up at LA 1. You’ll see the name “Warburg.”
Daniel Warburg Jr. was born in New Orleans in 1836, the youngest son of a German Jew who freed his slave mistress, a Cuban mulatoo named Rose Marie Blondeau.
Daniel and his older brother Eugene were thus “free people of color,” that mid-level New Orleans society between black and white, slave and master.
Historians know pathetically little about these”gens de couleur libres” who usually spoke French, excelled in arts and trades, were the “only Negro volunteer militia with its own free line officers” during the War of 1812 and fought with General Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans.
Both Warburg sons experienced the unusual freedoms and fetters of their unusual class. Their wealthy father saw to their fine education, but the social and artistic limitations of society drove Eugene, a supremely talented sculptor whose works were already displayed in St. Louis Cathedral and the Hotels Grundwald and Herman, to emigrate to Europe. With the terrible irony often faced by people of his class, he financed the trip partly through the sale of slaves.
Eugene died at 36 in Rome, but Daniel chose to stay in the place of his birth. For years, he made a good living as an independent marble cutter and sculptor near St. Louis I. He was admired for his carving style and for his unusual ability to work with equal ease in both marble and granite.
A fine-featured, heavyset brown man who was quiet and withdrawn, Warburg left us little written recored of what he thought and felt, his dreams and nightmares. But the cemeteries of New Orleans tell us much in stone, of the tombs he could build for others and the tomb he could afford for himself.
In his 1911 French-language history of Creoles of color, New Orleans-born Rodolphe Desdunes noted the elegant achievements of Daniel Warburg, and closed by remarking, “Let us note here in passing that certain writers naver fail to talk at length about the talents of Negroes as dancers, but the reader will search in vain among the works of the same authors to find a single line about the genius of such men as the Warburgs.”
We like to romanticize about old New Orleans, its heroes and style, plantations won or lost on a poker hand, steamboats ’round the bend.
The reality underneath the romance was as powerful and tragic as reality always is …
In “Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory and Disasters on Western Waters,” no less than 200 disasters are described with sickening reality. Lyle Saxon wrote, “Almost no steamboats escaped an unhappy end,” and they burned, wrecked on snags or were “destroyed by explosion of the boiler.”
The Barelli Tomb in St. Louis Cemetery II is fascinating because it is a frozen moment when the romance of that bygone era met – and absorbed – reality.
The romance is evident in the richness of the huge white marbled tomb surrounded by a black iron fence. Teh lushness of five marble angels who guard the roof, the narrative low-relief panel on the facade illustrating the draped spirit of Joseph Barelli’s young son being lifted into a sky filled with cherubs circling the All-Seeing Eye of God.
The moment when that son was lifted away, the reality under the romance, must have been, seared into Joseph Barelli’s brain. Because beneath the angels on that panel has been chiseled that moment, the explosion of the steamer “Louisian” in the New Orleans harbor, 1849.
As the steamboat sinks out of the panel, debris flies everywhere. One victim is prostrate, while another tries to flee with his hands clutched to his throat.
The Barelli depiction is not exaggerated. A witness to a similar explosion of the “Helen MacGregor,” which killed more than 60 people outside Memphis in 1830, described the scene:
“It was a complete wreck – a picture of description. It bore ample testimony to the tremendous force of that power which the ingenuity of man had brought to his aid … the deck had fallen down … bricks, dirt and rubbish were scattered about. Close by the bowsprit was a large rent, though which I was told the boiler had passed out, carrying one or two men in its mouth. Several dead bodies were lying around. Their fate had been an enviable one compared with that of others … ”
That must have been Barelli’s vision of his boy’s last moment. Borne by young angels to heaven, lifted up from the screeching horror of a burst boiler. The reality under the romance, all carved on a New Orleans tomb.
“Not a day passes without the graveyard welcoming new guests … It’s the mourners who deserve one’s sympathy, of course. They come in one weeping throng, and then they go away drying their tears and talking, as if while they’re here some force stronger than death itself has convinced them to stay alive.”
-Nagiub Mahfouz, The Thief and the Dogs.
Some, perhaps many, would see something excessive in Barelli’s grief and his monument to it.
But we should remember the time of Barelli, a time when the uncertainty of life created a mystical devotion to its end. Queen Victoria’s Prince Albert died in 1842, and for the next 60 years “The Widow of Windsor” had his bedclothes laid out every night next to a shaving bowl of hot water.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, New Orleans women were likely to spend half of their lives dressed in black. There were four prescribed stages of mourning, with prescribed fabrics for each stage. In deepest mourning, a widow was expected to remain at home for a year and a day and if she did go out, she wore a black crepe veil and dull-surfaced buttons.
Males wore dark suits, armbands, broaches housing a locket of the deceased’s hair and “weepers,” a sheer silk band around their top hates. Both sexes commissioned portraits of themselves in mourning.
Naturally, this meant grief was big business. Many stores on Chartres, Royal and Canal streets specialized in mourning; they restrung necklaces with simple black beads, they trimmed children’s pantaloons and doll caps in black, they ran big ads whenever ships loaded with bombazine pulled to port.
Reminders of loss were not limited to fashion. When a family member died, the entire house was draped in black. Mirrors were covered, black feathers were placed in vases, and food was served on black-trimmed plates.
We probably see all this as absurd. The people of that time were infatuated with grief; we are frightened of it. Both are excesses. And, as the retired man of letters says in Cocteau’s “Orpheus,” “No excess is absurd.”
The Christian Brothers tomb is treeless St. Patrick No. 3 stands clear and white against the cloudfields and a Canal Boulevard billboard.
Under a small Latin cross in crisp black lettering are the names of those members of the Catholic teaching order who “HIC JACENT” (“Here Lies”), and the inscriptions tell a story of New Orleans as the most dangerous city in the 19th century America. Brother Alfred of Mary died on September 11, 1867 and a week later, Brother Besas died. A week after that, Brother Silverian and Brother Eliseus passed away on the same day.
Later came Brothers Reynold and Eusebius and Dorotheus of Jesus and Lewis and Amedy Patrick. Within a year, nine members of the community were dead. The oldest was 53; two were 31, and four were in their 20s.
Bronze John had paid another call.
Yellow fever, yellow jack, Bronze John, hit New Orleans with such force and regularity that the city came as close as any in the New World to duplicating the medieval plague of the Black Death.
Some summers, people died so fast that they couldn’t be buried. In August of 1853, there were 1,100 people buried at the St. Patrick cemeteries, and newspapers ran ads for grave diggers at five dollars a day. High-piled wagons drove around the neighborhoods with drivers calling out, “Bring out your dead. Any dead ’round here today?”
Orleanians burned barrels of tar, swallowed sulphur and limewater, put onions in their shoes. And in many places, they must have prayed, prayed as the Killer came into the community and began his incomprehensible harvest.
In Christians Brothers schools like St. Mary’s Academy in the lower Irish Channel and St. Vincent’s Academy on Napoleon Avenue, they heard Bronze John coming and prayed.
At the time of the epidemics of 1853 and 1867, the brothers were a relatively new presence in the city. A superior of the French-based order named Brother Facile had come to New York in 1848. Brother Facile believed in building schools and soon had outposts throughout the South and Southwest.
To man those schools, Brother Facile knew where to go. Every year, he sent recruiters to Ireland, and in that land short on potatoes and long on primogeniture, the second sons from Sligo, Ballybeg and Dungannon answered the call for God and America.
Seven of the nine who died in the 1867 epidemic had begun life in Ireland, that place of no mosquitoes and no hope.
Somehow the order found volunteer replacements and kept its New Orleans schools going. “Sometimes the natural evil gives rise to the supernatural good,” says Brother Leo Harvey, the order’s New Orleans historian. “They just kept coming.”
The one word of Latin inscribed at the top of the tomb says it best. “Deprofundis,” which was the beginning of a popular burial Psalm of the day:
“Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord…”
In New Orleans, they’re called “Society tombs,” but they have nothing to do with elitism, at least not in the usual sense.
The “Society” was a burial or “benevolent” association, and it pooled the resources of the less affluent linked by trade or philosophy or ethnicity. From the 1840s until World War I, New Orleans was full of their tombs and mausoleums: Mechanics, Barbers and Typesetters; French, Swiss, Spanish, African, Portuguese and Corinthian. In Cypress Grove, there is even a Chinese society tomb, where bodies were customarily interred for a year and day before being shipped back to the motherland.
For many two dollars a month, you got some medical care while you were alive and a guaranteed resting place when you were not. But more than that, you got a built-in crowd of mourners, members of the same out-group sas yourself, to dress up and weep as you “were put away.”
Some of the names seem as quaint to modern sensibilities as what the societies themselves represented: Minerva Society, New Lusitanos, Sobriety Benevolent Association, Wide Awake Benevolent Society, Pure In Heart Temple No. 1.
There is a whole row of Italian society tombs among sections 86 and 88 in Metairie Cemetery. One belonged to the elaborate Christoforo Columbo Society; ferns now pierce the crypts. The largest tomb is that of the Contessa Entellina Association, named after a town in Sicily, and its commemorative inscription probably speaks to the hopes and fears of the societies:
“This monument stands as a tribute to the men and women of Contessa Entellina who came to this country as pioneers to start a new life. By their industry, integrity and honor, they earned the respect and admiration of the community.”
My favorite on this row is the oldest, that of Congregazione e Fratellanza Italianna Di San Bartolomeo. On its western face, the inscriptions unwittingly trace the origin, essence and decline of the societies.
The early inscriptions are all in Italian. They give no first names, no birth dates. Only dates of death and birth places, names of ancestral towns far greater or far humbler than this final place: Ustica, Palermo, Genova, Cefalu, Napoli, Termini.
The final inscription was “Frank Columbo, died August 24, 1902.” In english, Americanized first name, no Italian birthplace given.
On the roof, atop waving weeds, is a remarkable statue of St. Bartholomew, its Neptune-like appearance accentuated by seaweed like green mold. The lower portion of his raised right arm is missing, but from the remainder hangs his skin, symbolizing his martyrdom by flaying. It puts me in mind of the dual presentation common to all immigrants; no matter what their station in their homeland, it was almost sure to change in New Orleans.
One other thing. The tomb that St. Bartholomew looks down on is that of Louie Prima, rightfully inscribed “A Legend.” All around are the tombs of the other second- and third-generation Italians: Clesi, Bonnano, Taranto, Caravella, Mancuso. Their songs and daughters live and will be buried individually among friends and neighbors who know or care nothing of Palermo, Cefalu or Termini. They have been raised by assimilation and crushed by it, lifted and smothered.
And molded into something like a New Orleanian …