July 12th, 2002
Day 86 (page 1)

Start: New Orleans, LA
Finish: New Orleans, LA

Miles Today: 0
Miles to Date: 8036
Trooper Mileage: 176957

I started fairly early (9:00 AM) on my exploration of the city, which would be by foot and trolley. Even in the early morning the heat and humidity created a thickness to the air that seemed to impede rapid motion. Stepping outside from the air-conditioned house, my glasses immediately fogged up, and regardless how much I wiped them off, they stayed that way until they warmed up to the ambient temperature. I began to wonder how long you needed to live here before you grew gills. My clothes went limp in the dampness. That, combined with the fact that I've lost a few pounds (I've found it harder to get regular exercise lately) made my clothes hang like loose rags off my body.

Decatur Street in the French QuarterI walked about a mile through the French Quarter to Canal street, where I boarded the trolley that runs on a circuit for a couple of miles through the "American" quarter. Whereas the French Quarter goes back almost 300 years, the other parts of the city only go back to the Lafayette Cemetery gatesLouisiana Purchase (1803). My first stop was Lafayette Cemetery, (establihsed 1833) which is one of several in the city where the tombs are all above ground.

Contrary to legend, the tombs were not built above-ground as a means to deal with the high water table in the area. They were built that way simply because that was the European Typical New Orleans cryptstradition of the well-to-do, brought over from the Old World. Also, the manner in which they functioned made for a very efficient, if somewhat macabre, method for interring multiple family members in a small facility.

The tombs are built with generally two vaults (sometimes more), one over the other. Ech vault is floored with a slab, often made of slate (which does not deteriorate like marble does). Below the vaults is another cavity. The slate beds do not go all the way to the back of the crypt, making for an open space that drops along the back of the vaults to the cavity below.

An open tombThe front is faced with a marble slab inscribed with the usual details on the occupants. Behind the slab is a brick wall built in such a manner that it is easily knocked aout and replaced. When someone dies, the tomb is opened, and the body placed in one of the vaults. The caskets used are designed for quick decomposition, typically fiberboard or even cardboard. The law also requires that a bucket of lime be spread over the body.Tomb containig lots of people

The tomb can simultaneously hold as many bodies as there are vaults (generally two). However, back in the bad old days, what with yellow fever, flu, drunken bar brawls and duels (it's amazing the stupid things men will do to impress women) sometimes people died off at a frightening rate. So - what to do?

The law requires that a body remain in the vault for a year and a day. If all vaults are occupied that the requisite time has not transpired, bodies were temporarily interred in the wall vaults (see left side of picture above on the right). After that time, the vault can be refilled. Generally, after that time, there is almost nothing left - between the humidity, the insects and the lime, even most of the bones are gone. Whatever is left is simply swept to the back of the slab, where is falls down the opening in the back to the cavity at the bottom of the tomb. And this, boys and girls, is how you get twenty or thirty family members into a vault the size of a Kia sedan.

Burials in the cemetery had pretty much ended about 40 years ago, and remained uncommon for many years. Then, about 10 years ago, it sprang back into vogue, and now there are sometimes a couple of burials here in any given week.

This cemetery is no longer maintained by the city or the church. It is maintained by a private historical foundation that conducts tours, with the $6 donation going to preservation and repair of the older tombs that are not maintained by surviving family.

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