By Anna Sturla, JCamp Live Reporter; Ellie Batchiyska, JCamp Live Video Reporter; and Jack Chen, JCamp Live Photographer
It’s a different kind of cemetery, with a different kind of silence. It’s not the chill of New England graveyards or the hush of Midwestern funeral homes. It’s New Orleans, where everything seems to wilt in the blistering heat except the white tombs.
Most people just see graves. Angie Green sees companionship.
Many of the 400 or so tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 are family crypts that hold the remains of more than 10,000 ancestors, all resting together along one city block.
“It’s sort of the ultimate in family togetherness,” said Green, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit created in 1974 to preserve New Orleans’ burial grounds.
Of all the cemeteries in the city, No. 1 is the crown jewel. Founded in 1789, it’s the oldest, the most famous and the second-most-visited cemetery in the United States. A few of the tombs, shaped like mini-Parthenons, are lovingly cared for, but most of them are abandoned and crumbling.
The tombs are all above ground, a tradition that takes after the city’s French heritage.
The dead are buried for at least a year and a day – enough time for the sun to naturally cremate them. Their remains are then moved underground.
“It guarantees that everyone gets at least one summer in these ovens,” Green said.
The oldest tomb is anonymous, a low-lying grave with just a brick cover rising above the earth.
One grave, in particular, stands out among the rest: It is big and white and in the shape of a pyramid, like something you’d see in Las Vegas. It is reserved for actor Nicolas Cage.
“There’s nobody in there yet, obviously,” Green said.
The reputed tomb of Marie Laveau, the 19th-century voodoo queen who was a hairdresser on the side, is also here. It’s a big draw on among tourists who visit the cemetery, which is on the fringe of the French Quarter.
Some tombs were shared by entire families. Others were shared by groups that couldn’t afford their own family tomb. This guaranteed mourners at their funeral.
Green’s favorite tomb in the cemetery is one reserved for the Young Ladies Association. The ornate facade collapsed long ago, but the tilting tower, made of brickwork, still rises above the surrounding tombs. It houses the remains of the young women of New Orleans who died without family or friends. Green, who moved from Wisconsin nine years ago, identifies with them.
“I just love knowing I could be buried here,” Green said.
For most of the year, the cemetery sits in muggy silence. But once a year, on All Saints’ Day, the mausoleums and crypts burst with life, as relatives tend to their ancestral tombs.
They clean up the surroundings, lime-wash the tomb sides and lay fresh flowers below nameplates. Then the family members picnic, as children play along the miniature alleys.
“It’s sort of like a once-a-year tomb family reunion,” Green said.
She loves that day. Decades from now, those same visitors will be buried alongside one another, like neighbors.
“You know that these are the people who are going to be part of your life and part of your death,” Green said. “There’s something very emotional about knowing you’re going to be laid where your family is laid.”
Green considers herself lucky. She takes care of the city’s cemeteries because she appreciates them as landmarks. But it goes beyond that. She also feels a great sense of responsibility to the dead.
She feels most responsible for people buried in the cemetery who don’t have nameplates, who don’t appear on the records.
“It’s important to remember that each person buried here,” she said.
The state of each tomb reflects on the state of its family.
Despite the best efforts of preservationist groups such as Save Our Cemeteries, tombs begin to decline as families break apart, die or simply lose interest in their past.
The relinquishing of one family results in the forsaking of its tomb, a chain reaction that threatens the very culture of New Orleans.
And that’s the most important thing about No. 1 – it is New Orleans.
Nameplates switch from Creole French to English as time passes. A family tomb that saw its first member buried in the 1830s buried its last one in 2004.
No. 1 is lined with such names as Domingo Acosta, Charles F. Whittaker and J.P. Erard. Also, Famille Gaiennie, Famille LeBourhis and Famille Alonzo Thomas.
They were Spanish, English and French; all representing the unique influences of New Orleans.
As the sun drags itself higher overhead, the cemetery starts to empty out.
Jerald Ellis, 23, entered No. 1 alone and headed straight to Laveau’s tomb to finally pay his respects. Ellis is Creole and from New Orleans, but he had not visited the cemeteries before.
He recognized each abandoned tomb as another shattered tie to his city’s past. He compared it to the Creole culture he knows, the one he wants to teach to his children one day.
“If you keep up a tomb, then you care about your past, and where you came from,” Ellis said. “If you don’t keep up your tomb, then you don’t care about your past [or] where you came from.”
Ellis has no family in the cemetery, but in a way he mourns another loss.
“If you lose the history of the city,” he said, “you sort of lose the purpose of the people.”