Hurricane Katrina has transformed the legendary New Orleans cemeteries, known as “cities of the dead,” into a brown landscape of muck and stench. But fears that the cemeteries have been destroyed are allayed. At least in New Orleans proper, concerns that floodwaters would send large numbers of coffins and corpses floating away from their crypts were largely unfounded (Cain Burdeau, Associated Press, September 17, 2005).
At this time in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more information is becoming available regarding the fate of the Metairie and other landmark cemeteries located in the flood area. At one historic above-ground cemetery in the Garden District known as Lafayette No. 1, uprooted magnolia trees destroyed part of a 200-year-old wall believed to contain human remains. This is across the street from the home which once belonged to Anne Rice. In Placquemines Parish, south of New Orleans, coffins, crypts, and remains have been strewn about. Coffins have found their way into trees and living rooms, while remains have “taken a walk.” The fifteen cemeteries of the parish were ripped up by the hurricane, which floated coffins from the above-ground crypts favored because of the high water table and lack of real soil. In some cases 3,000-pound crypts were flung from one bank to the Mississippi to the other by the high winds. (source: Yahoo News)
New Orleans cemeteries are unique. Although they are similar to those in Paris and Mexico City, they differ in one important respect. While the structures in other cemeteries are usually memorials with remains interred in crypts below ground, the above-ground tombs and wall vaults in New Orleans cemeteries are actual resting places of remains. As bodies decay along with their lime-and-shell mortared dwellings, the rubble becomes mixed with bone fragments, sea shells, and teeth. Possibly this is one reason New Orleans cemeteries are referred to as “cities of the dead.” Cemeteries here are also plentiful, steeped in history and lore. This makes them great tourist attractions.
Learn more about New Orleans cemeteries and burial practices at ExperienceNewOrleans.com.
The images on this page were made in 1999 at the Metairie Cemetery. They were taken on Kodak high-contrast Tech-Pan 35 mm film with an SLR. Angels in New Orleans possess a tremendous character, and closely resemble in style those in Pere Lechaise, the famous garden cemetery in Paris. For the most part, the statuary here is uniquely carved, and each has a story. “Lost at Sea” is a larger-than-life-sized pair of marble angels atop a mausoleum, being commissioned by a New Orleans businessman who lost his wife and daughter at sea in the late 1800s. “Forlorn Guardian” is a name I gave to the angel near the main entrance.
Metairie is the first suburb of New Orleans, located on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and has sustained flooding and damage in the Katrina disaster. For a period of time after Katrina withdrew, the water line was several feet high on some of the mausoleums and tombs. Usually resplendent with flowering magnolias and pancake-smooth lawns, the grounds were caked in mud and a carpet of dead leaves. Cain Burdeau (Associated Press) wrote on September 17 that the low-lying city’s policy of interring its dead in above-ground tombs appears to have paid off, but cautioned that the full extent of damage is still unknown. The city’s position at or below sea level makes digging graves all but impossible. Many of the cemeteries are in a cluster of private and public grounds near where a flood wall on the 17th Street Canal was breached by the storm surge.
Metairie, the most famous of New Orleans’ “above-ground cemeteries,” holds the remains of Gen. Richard Taylor, P. T. G. Beauregard and monuments dedicated to the Louisiana Division of the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Washington Artillery, all Confederate forces. The cemetery lies northwest of the Beauregard house, closer to the middle of the city. Recent aerial photographs of the cemetery (showing tombs and monuments inundated) can be seen on Flickr.
Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery
5100 Pontchartrain Blvd.
New Orleans, LA 70124