Why N.O.’s cities of the dead require a room with a view

For Gerard Schoen III, community relations director of Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, All Saints’ Day – Nov. 1 – is the Super Bowl Sunday of the New Orleans funeral business.

It’s not just that our city named its professional football team, founded on Nov. 1, 1966, in honor of the “saints,” a nickname that Archbishop Philip Hannan famously endorsed at the time as non-sacrilegious before cautioning with a knowing wink: “But I must tell you, most of the saints were martyrs.”

Nov. 1 is special in New Orleans cemetery circles because it draws thousands back to the tomb – visiting, praying in front of and sprucing up a place that in this topographically challenged city often is a small, white, granite home with a view.

Forget for a moment the fact that it is easier to vote on Election Day if you are not 6 feet under. The real reasons New Orleans has some of the world’s most interesting cemeteries, Schoen says, are space (or, more precisely, the lack of space) and water.

Schoen said when Bienville discovered New Orleans, he quickly made note of why the Native Americans who lived on the swampy land prior to the arrival of the Europeans buried their dead in the levees of the Mississippi River.

“That is because New Orleans is painfully below sea level, so they sought the higher ground,” Schoen said.

The first cemetery in New Orleans – St. Peter’s Cemetery near St. Louis Church in the French Quarter – was on relatively high ground but obsolete almost as soon as it opened.

“What they quickly discovered is that ground cemeteries were not going to work in New Orleans because space is precious,” Schoen said. “We are landlocked around water, with the lake and the river, and cemeteries expand and take up space.”

Schoen said in the late 1700s, Louisiana Gov. Esteban Miró brought “some of his influence and traditions” from his Spanish homeland, which included having multiple burials in above-ground tombs.

“People come on tour buses because they just love the New Orleans cemeteries,” Schoen said. “You don’t see this anywhere else in the United States.”

Schoen said an above-ground family tomb is an engineering marvel. Before the tomb is constructed, he said, a hole is dug to a depth approximating the height of the tomb. The receptacle is lined.

The visible part of the tomb has two or three vaults, each capable of accommodating a casket. When all vaults are used and space is needed for another burial, the oldest casket is carefully removed, and the physical remains of the deceased are placed in a bag and lowered into the below-ground receptacle through iron bars at the ground level of the tomb.

These tombs are expensive, but for a multi-generational family, “once you have the tomb, you can use it for generations,” Schoen said.

Metairie Cemetery was founded after the Civil War – in 1872 – on the grounds of the old Metairie Race Course, whose three ovals designed for thoroughbred racing still define the oak-shrouded layout.

How many people are buried in Metairie Cemetery?

“All of them,” Schoen said, laughing.

Actually, his research indicates approximately 120,000 people are buried in the former race course. “It literally is a city of the dead,” Schoen said.

As for Archbishop Hannan, who gave the OK for the Saints’ nickname, Schoen has true reverence. Schoen was in charge of the horse-drawn funeral cortege in 2011 that carried Archbishop Hannan’s  body five miles from Notre Dame Seminary to St. Louis Cathedral.

He saw thousands of people lined on each side of the street, many who genuflected and made the sign of the cross as the cortege passed by.

“I will always remember the respect that New Orleans had for the man,” Schoen said. “He carried us through storms. He was very much a common-sense person along with the theological aspect.”

Schoen said he expects a large crowd to attend the All Saints’ Day Mass at Lake Lawn at 3 p.m. on Nov. 1, which will be celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

In true New Orleans style, there will be something for everyone.

“After Mass we’ll have a little refreshments with cookies and punch, and we’ll give out a nice little gift – a coaster of one of the more famous tombs in Metairie Cemetery,” Schoen said. “That’s perfect for New Orleans. As you’re sitting there drinking your wine, you can  have a coaster of one of our famous tombs.”

Only in New Orleans.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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