Initially, large holes were bored into the bottom of the coffins so they would sink right away…but this painful ordeal ultimately led to the creation of above ground tombs…so many in fact that someone once commented that New Orleans’ cemeteries were like “cities of the dead.”
Not everyone believed these “cities of the dead” were erected because of problems related to flooding and the city's close proximity to sea level. Nevertheless the phenomenon is deeply ingrained into cultural reflections, replete with verifiable stories of new burials literally bobbing out of the ground or even floating down the city’s streets. To tell the truth, it has only been in the last few years that anyone has given the matter any real consideration…is it fact or fiction?
Two major factors should be taken into any serious discussion. One, predominate burial traditions in the oldest cemeteries, namely the tombs, are all simply traditions introduced to the region by the French and Spanish colonists and are very common in other areas settled by these peoples, even regions in higher elevations. Two, ground interment has always been practiced in the region for either cultural or economic reasons. But you have to admit that anyone fascinated by New Orleans history, as well as anyone relating it, certainly gets a lot of mileage from the original story.
There are now 42 such cemeteries in Metropolitan New Orleans and the Metairie Cemetery is considered one of the most beautiful in the world…and certainly the most unique! Walking through the gate of Lafayette Cemetery is like walking through a portal into the past. Row upon row of raised tombs, some a century and a half old, arranged somewhat like houses in a city.
Once a coffin or casket is placed into a tomb or other interment vehicle, it is sealed with brick and mortar or covered with soil. After the minimum period has gone by, (usually "one year and one day", based upon Judeo-Christian mourning rituals, although periods may vary as per the requirements of families or individual cemetery authorities, etc.), the vehicle may be re-used, if needed, by simply removing the seal, separating the human remains from what is left of the casket, and replacing the remains back into the tomb (either pushed to the rear of the vault, or placed in the bottom). The casket is simply disposed of, so for that reason this burial style doesn't usually require the use of expensive caskets. Of course, this doesn't take place in the presence of the family who are attending the funeral while this phase of the procedure is performed, and it is always performed in a respectful manner.
Interments are not opened unless they are needed, which may be many years later. However, previous remains are ultimately allowed to simply deteriorate in the bottom of the tomb, which is what "Latin" interment practice is about. Ensuring that remains are left at the burial site, allowing the natural process to take place fulfills the requirements of "ashes to ashes...dust to dust". This process may take decades, although one year is nominally, due to the history of epidemics in the city during the nineteenth century, plus one day out of deference to the family, considered enough time for a body to decompose enough to be handled and fulfill the minimum deference requirements. Remains from all interment vehicles remain at the interment site, unless families request that remains be transferred or handled in a specific manner.
Most of the names in the cemetery are German, which is very interesting given the centuries-long rivalry between the French and the Germans. This is simply another sign of the cultural "melting pot " that is New Orleans. As more and more immigrant groups arrived they were invariably subjected to the traditions of earlier cultures- adopting many of the established practices as their own within a few generations. Nevertheless, there are a number of different burial traditions practiced within the cemetery, each with their own unique origins.
“Family Tombs” are most common in the cemetery and bring rise to the belief that aboveground burial is due directly to the city's inherent water problems. In fact this style originated in the Mediterranean region thousands of years ago and was introduced to New Orleans and other New World colonies by the French and Spanish "Creoles," which actually means "colonists." Tombs, mausoleums and other raised, non-earthen, burial styles are common in most regions of the world with a strong Latin, Roman Catholic tradition. One logical theory for anyone familiar with Southern Europe is the burial style evolved as a result of "rocky" soil in the region, making it more practical to find or build a burial structure.
In French, the word for tomb is "caveau"(cellar), or "caverne"(cave); "una tombe" is also a French term which may be applied. Soil burials are, and always have been, practiced for a number of reasons, the least of which being that paupers without tombs would necessarily be interred into any available ground, especially during the epidemics. Then, as today, more affluent families prefer tombs as a sign of status and culture.
Originating in the same way as the family tombs, society tombs are for the members of various organizations, and their families. Many religious groups, clubs, fraternal societies, etc., as well as military, law enforcement and fire organizations had their own tombs and "benevolent associations" to handle the wishes of their members. Especially practical for families who could not afford their own family tomb, each vault in these multi-vaulted structures was (and still is, in many cases) assigned to individual families.
Also common in the cemetery are what are referred to as "copings", or retaining walls for soil, raising the burial level several feet above the ground. This, as in the case of the tombs, is also not because of water but due to a different cultural tradition originating in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. Some cultures, such as Jewish, Arabic or Protestant, for example, prefer earthen burial to aboveground. This style is also found in many places around the world. There are also a small number of soil burials flush in the ground found in the cemetery usually surrounded by cast-iron fencing, and a few in-ground vaults. The reason they are not very common in Lafayette Cemetery seems to be more because of the location of the cemetery and it’s middle-to-upper-class orientation, as paupers and potters field cemeteries are usually all below ground.
Wall vaults are located on the Washington Avenue side of the cemetery, although they possibly used to surround it. These vaults were used when tombs were not available for interments, such as for new families or if the minimum period of a year and a day had not yet passed. Ultimately all were sold outright to families, but during the worst days of 'yellow fever', many were used temporarily. After the period requirement was fulfilled, remains could then be transferred to their final resting place
Apparently, if you must die…New Orleans is a very good place to do it and…dead or alive, no visit to New Orleans would be complete without a tour of one or more of these CITIES OF THE DEAD. Through the cemeteries and their tombs, it’s possible to relive the romance, tragedy and all the memories that are part of the very unique heritage of New Orleans. You may even find these cities of the dead to be quite alive!