My most memorable visit to a cemetery does not involve one of the numerous times I went to bury a loved one, although there were plenty of those to choose from. Here in New Orleans, while jazz funerals are not the norm and we don't habitually second-line at the cemetery like they portray in Hollywood, funerals do tend to have a party atmosphere. I don't know if it's all the food we bring to the funeral home, or the boisterous reliving of past of the decedent, or maybe the alcohol we can drink in public, but funerals are more of a celebration of the life of the person than the mourning of his or her death.
I went to my first funeral and burial when I was around 3 or 4. It wasn't a close relative, but one who lived in "the country." This meant lots of French speaking people, lots of Cajun accents, and lots of off-color jokes I didn't quite get. Althought it was memorable, it wasn't my most memorable visit to the cemetery.
The closest relative I buried was my father the February before Katrina hit. He died in his home, unexpectedly, calling out to my mother that he didn't feel well. As he made it into the next room, he keeled over, dead from heart failure. He was not ill, but had diabetes and had previously had a kidney removed because of a tumor. Apparently, he also had heart problems, although nothing he took medicine for. That funeral was notable because halfway through the wake, all of the electricity went off in the funeral home. I mentioned that it was so George--I always called my father by his first name, even when I was a small child, because he got a kick out of it-- and commented that he was probably looking up at us right now, laughing. It took a moment for most people to get the implication, but because it's New Orleans, everyone joined George and laughed as well. But that also was not my most memorable visit to a cemetery.
My most memorable visit to a cemetery was to St. Louis Number 1, where I took my two daughters on a cemetery tour because the oldest one--in 4th grade at the time--was doing her social studies project on Cities of the Dead, New Orleans cemeteries. We knew the history, like how our dead are buried above ground. While most people think this is solely because we're below sea level, it actually has more to do with the fact that the city was settled by the French and Spanish, who buried their dead above ground. (The original inhabitants, the Indians, buried below ground.) We also knew the reason the Saints football team was cursed was because the Superdome was built on an ancient burial ground, a la Amityville Horror. Even after the bodies were relocated it took many years for the curse to reverse itself, until 2010 in fact, when we won the Superbowl. (Sorry, but a New Orleans native can't write a piece and mention the Saints without also mentioning the Superbowl win.)
What we were looking for were photos for the project. I also wanted my daughter to get the feel, the proper mood, for writing the paper. Yes, the research paper had to be full of the facts and the history, but it didn't have to be dry and boring. I thought seeing our oldest cemetery would put her in the frame of mind to write about it.
St. Louis Number 1 is like most of our older cemeteries. It has old tombs and crypts, some busted and broken to the point that bones can be seen inside. It is also not safe to venture into at night, because all kinds of Bad Guys frequent the cemeteries, waiting for unsuspecting tourists to drop their guard.
What makes Number 1 different is that it contains what is believed to be the crypt of Marie Laveau. Of course, no one knows for sure where she's buried, but most people believe it is in this cemetery. People leave offerings at the crypt in hopes that the dead voodoo priestess might grant them a wish. Some people also mark the crypt with an X or a cross, usually from the brick of another grave. There is no rational explanation for why people do this, except maybe to show they have been there to honor her.
But what made this visit to the cemetery so memorable wasn't that Marie Laveau was buried in it, or that my husband knew more about cemeteries and the history of the people buried in this particular one than the tour guide, but that my daughter took in all of the history she had read to prepare the writing portion of the project, and then, unexpectedly, got excited about writing it.
It was the first time I had seen her actually look forward to beginning a writing project. Thankfully, it wasn't the last. After studying the history, and then seeing the reality, something clicked for her, and she realized that writing doesn't have to be a burden. Our trip to St. Louis Number 1 Cemetery taught her something I could not, and despite having a multitude of cemetery visits to choose from, that made this one the most memorable for me.
Causes Holli Castillo Supports
American Diabetes Association, American Breast Cancer Association, Lazarus House New Orleans