10 March 2012

Notes from New Orleans and the cities of the dead

One of these days I'll get back to writing about kitchen and bath design but in the meantime, I'm going to continue to write about whatever comes to mind. Bear with me. I'll get back to my niche eventually.


I spent a good part of last week visiting some long-term friends (Kevin Smith and Brandon Bergman) in their new hometown, New Orleans.

While the rest of the world thinks of New Orleans in terms of Bourbon Street and the shenanigans that accompany Mardi Gras; or the horrors it suffered when the infrustructure failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; there is much more to that city. It's a place that doesn't feel like the rest of the United States, and the city's conventions and norms make it unlike anywhere else. New Orleans feels like a place without a time or a country and it serves as pressure valve for the world.

I have a number of friends who've moved there over the course of the last four years from Florida. Collectively, I refer to them as economic refugees. People who moved to New Orleans to seek their futures as the city rebuilds itself in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

New Orleans is back in a very big way and it's a real thrill to watch my friends there riding the wave of the Crescent City's rebirth; FEMA, BP and the Army Corps of Engineers be damned.

Rebirth isn't really the right word though. New Orleans has been through the mill since its founding in the early 1700s as La Nouvelle-OrlĂ©ans. The city passed from French to Spanish and then back to French hands before it became part of the US. Huge amounts of that pre-US infrastructure still exist and it's impossible when in the heart of the city to keep an accurate count of the 18th-Century structures that are still in day to day use.

Beyond its architecture, the culture of New Orleans stands apart from the rest of the US. While it's a thoroughly American city, it retains a feel for its founding cultures that the rest of the US has lost utterly. One of the things that amazes me more than just about anything is its numerous "Cities of the Dead," as cemeteries are known.

I had the pleasure to spend a leisurely afternoon this week in Lafayette #1, one of New Orleans' cemeteries in the city's Garden District. Lafayette #1 was established in 1833 and is a perfect example of how the City has sent her residents to their final repose since the city's beginnings.

Unique in the United States, New Orleans disposes of its dead in above-ground crypts rather than burying them. The going story is that the crypts are a function of the city's low topography but that's not really true. It's as much a throwback to its Continental roots and the reality of its lack of space as anything.

The crypts of New Orleans, like everything else about the place, have an interesting story to tell.

Crypts are owned by families or organizations and the crypts sit on leased land.

When someone dies, he or she is placed on the shelf shown here and the crypt is then sealed.

After a year and a day, the crypt keeper opens the crypt and with a ten-foot pole, pushes the remains to the back of the shelf. At the back of the shelf there's a slit and the remains fall through that slit and drop to the bottom of the crypt. The crypt is now ready for the next family death and it's re-sealed. According to the lore of New Orleans, this is the origin of the expression, "I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole."

On All Soul's Day every year, the people of New Orleans lay tribute in front of these crypts in the form of flowers, beads and other mementos. It's a touching gesture of respect of the deceased.

Not all crypts are owned by families. Some are owned by fraternal organizations or charities. While at Lafayette #1, I came across a large crypt owned by the Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys, an organization that still exists in New Orleans.

In the most touching example of an already touching practice, the ledge on the face of the crypt was filled to overflowing with toys.

New Orleans is an amazing city and one with a legacy it's all to willing to share with anyone who asks. So head there some time and ask.


  1. I'm heading to Nawlins tomorrow through Tuesday! (In a conference room for most of it.)

  2. Conference room not withstanding, have a good time Nora. Where are you staying?

  3. Paul, have you watched the HBO series "Treme"? If not, put it on your list. It is great. Also, if you get a chance to see the Anthony Bourdain show where he last goes to New Orleans watch that too. If you are like me you will be wanting to lick your tv screen.

  4. HBO was filming Treme while I was there. My friends Kevin and Brandon live in that neighborhood. Brandon had a dinner party on Wednesday and they were filming less than a block away. I felt almost famous.


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