I’m eating a beignet with a cafe au lait in an open air patio while listening to Etta James. In front of me, dangling across the ironwork base of an archaic water pump like a damp rag an extremely and somewhat chubby cat is sleeping soundly in the languid humidity. A strange sort of traveler’s paradise this is.
I’m waiting here for my walking tour of St. Louis cemetery. I’m interested to see how the rest of the day goes.
7.15 pm Back at Greg’s…On the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
The heat was even more unbearable than usual, especially at the cemetery. It may seem odd to many why I would be so interested in a cemetery, but I must say my trip was worth it. New Orleans and many parts of Southern Louisiana are known for the above ground crypts. The reason for their existence was pragmatic – the water table in this part of Louisiana is particularly high, making burying anything deep under ground impractical. The constant threat of flooding made the sight of freshly buried corpses floating down the street a frequent site in the early years of the city. Burying above ground thus seemed a natural and effective way of preserving the dignity of the citizenry after their departure from this world.
The necropolis had a genuine air of being infused with an Old World (African and Latin Catholic) spirituality, where filial piety and an emphasis on recognition and rootedness of the past are ever-present. Like the city itself, its sadness, for me at least, stems from a sense of abandonment. Much of the famed artwork associated with it has been stolen, and a feeling arose in me (hopefully a false one) that many families who had utilized these cemeteries to bury their dead may abandon the tradition as the new generation stays in exile from the city after Katrina.
I think one of the many reasons I’m fascinated with this place is how it represents the interplay of communal endeavor, spirituality, the importance of family, and the struggle against time through memory. History consumes people. This is neither a gloomy or morbid statement but merely a statement of obvious fact. Our guide, author Robert Florence, made a point of highlighting some of the crypts and structures erected by and funded by Catholic immigrant benevolent societies for the masses of poor, working class immigrants who helped create New Orleans , people of mixed race (nowhere else in the South would you see a cemetery this old that would allow anyone with a trace of African ancestry to be buried alongside Europeans) like Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, old French Creole aristocrats, and even Protestant Anglo-Saxon Americans all sharing this very limited space. The cemetery, in his words, acts like a microcosm of the city – divisions of class and race and religion exist, but at the same time, the city was and is fundamentally a pluralistic polis long before notions of multiculturalism really existed. Multicultural or not, all people, regardless of origin, all people fear Time. Many critics of religion argue that the religious impulse is based on a neurotic fear of death. Personally I think that’s an overstatement. What people do fear is not dying – finitude is a bit of knowledge everyone gains early and accepts – but fear of being lost or forgotten when Time envelopes oneself and subsequent generations. Cemeteries around the world try to preserve that sliver of memory in a struggle against Time. St. Louis Cemetery seems special, however. As I mentioned above, a distinct Old World aura pervades the place. After the tour of the cemetery, Mr. Florence took us to see his friend Priestess Miriam of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple. The temple and the priestess both give the impression of authenticity, serenity, and immense gravity – there is nothing that gives one the feeling that this is a mere tourist trap, and Priestess Miriam certainly takes her religion very seriously. Amongst the many hard-to-follow non-sequiters in her rather stream of conscious speech to us was one gem that stood out to me: Voodoo is based on the idea that “our merits are based on the merits of others” who came before us. It is this idea, of being connected to one’s surroundings and in recognizing how our identities are created (at least partially) by the processes of history that affected our ancestors, that linger with me.
The rest of the day I spent walking in the French Quarter. Got to see the Mississippi, Jackson Square, Faulkner’s resting place (now a beautiful little bookstore). Royal street has man exquisite art galleries, and, as in San Francisco, the art dealers there always gather some sort of vibe from me that I am the type of person who can actually afford $7000 on a painting.