Saturday, August 10, 2013

Burial In New Orleans...Water?....Really?


Closeup image of soil on an inground
grave in Carrollton Cemeter.  Note the
deep cracks.  I dropped a penny down
in one and it disappeared deep inside.
People who study New Orleans history often study in the wrong places.  Books have been published by people who are not qualified researchers and this is how misinformation gets distorted into myth.  The water issue in New Orleans has always been overstated when it comes to burial.  Yes, water presented a challenge, but is New Orleans the only place in the world with a high water table and swampy soil?  Of course not.  Why, then, is New Orleans burial different?  The reason behind the above ground tombs is actually because of an early 19th century belief that burial in our soft, delta soil was unsanitary.  After having been saturated during our rainy Spring and Summer seasons the soil shrinks and subsides as it dries out; large, deep cracks begin to develop.  (See image.)  In the days before modern embalming, corpses would be buried in wooden coffins in shallow graves and as the cracks developed and the body decompsed, the smell would come radiating up through the soil and it was believed that the soil was contaminated and spreading disease.  Following a flood in 1816, the Medical Committee of Louisiana issued the subsequent recommendations to the city for measures which they believed would ensure the salubrity of The City of New Orleans:

“In the old cemetery, burials will be at noon following the death, and sooner if declared an epidemic disease.  A layer of quicklime will be spread over the entire surface of the cemetery, which may not be less than six inches and care will be taken that corpses will be buried in deep pits, which will immediately be filled with quicklime to eliminate the release of gas and putrid miasma.”
 
Pere Lachaise Cemetery, circa 1820
The following year something happened in Paris' Pere Lachaise cemetery that would profoundly impact burial in New Orleans.  Burials within the city of Paris were banned in 1789 over the same concerns over sanitation and salubrity that plagued New Orleans.  Pere Lachaise was established in 1804 but because of its remote location away from the city it was far from successful.  In 1817 the remains of the Medieval lovers, Abelard and Heloise, were relocated there (following the previous re-interments of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière) in an effort to stimulate interest in the struggling cemetery.  It worked.  Suddenly Pere Lachaise, with its elaborate above-ground tombs, became the chic place to rest eternally among the fabled famous.  Creoles with families in Paris began looking into similar mausoleums in New Orleans in an effort to keep mortal remains out of the soil, thereby eliminating contamination.  The first above ground tombs began showing up in New Orleans in 1821 and the following year the Board of Health issued a resolution requiring the city to clean things up.  Here are excerpts:

"AT a meeting of the Board on Tuesday, the 2d of July, 1822, the following resolutions were adopted: –

Resolved, That the Board of Health consider the burying ground of the Roman Catholics a hot bed of infection, injurious to the health of the inhabitants of this city, in consequence of the digging of graves too often repeated, on a space of ground too small, and infected by the putrefaction of bodies buried thereon, and that said burying ground is quite too near the city.

"The Board of Health are of opinion, that in order to remove the nuisance occasioned by the said burying ground to the said inhabitants, it would be proper to discontinue as soon as possible the interments[1] therein – and, pending the execution of the measures which the City Council may deem proper to this effect, that the ground be dug in the parts least infected of the said burying ground.

"The season has recurred when it becomes the duty of the Board of Health to execute with rigor the provisions of the “Code of Public Health,” intended to prevent the introductions of pestilential disease from abroad, and to guard against its cosmetic occurrence by strict attention to the removal or correction of local causes within the city.  Referring with pleasure to the happy issue of their labors during the last year[2], they call with increased confidence upon the inhabitants of every description to co-operate with the Board in their efforts to effect a similar result.  While a rigid quarantine will be enforced where danger is apprehended from a foreign source, a system of police measures for the cleanliness of the city has been digested, which the Board, with the enlarged means placed at their disposal, are determined to carry into operation."

The City responded with a massive cemetery overhaul and created the following ordinance: (Excerpts)
City Council of New Orleans
An ORDINANCE respecting the Burial Grounds.

The City Council decrees as follows : –

 – From the 1st of September next no interment (inground burial) shall take place in the present Burial Ground situated between Conti and St. Louis Street but under a penalty of one hundred dollars to be imposed on the sexton of the said Burial Ground.

 – From the above date all persons, dying in the city of New Orleans and its environs, shall be buried either in the burial ground of the fauxbourg (sic) St. Mary[3], or in the new burial ground[4] formed by the reunion of the islets marked upon the plan of the City Surveyor, No. 38, 39, 40 and 41 – two thirds of the said burial ground being apportioned for Roman Catholics, and the remaining third for the burying of Protestants and other persons not profession the Catholic religion.

 – Persons dying after the 1st September, next, shall be carried to their respective burial grounds, and deposited in graves which shall not be less than four feet deep, and dug three feet apart, following the line which will be designated by the City Surveyor.

– It shall be the duty of the City Surveyor to visit the burial grounds once every week, to mark out the lines for the formation of the graves and tombs, reserving all round the said enclosure places sufficient for the construction of tombs.[5]  It shall be the duty of the Commissary of Police to visit the burial grounds every day, to insure the execution of the present Ordinance; to receive from the Sextons their respective certificates of interments, and to cause the same to be given into the office of the Mayor, together with his report of the Police of the said burial grounds.

 – The tombs which shall be hereafter constructed, must be of brick, the walls twelve inches thinks, cemented with good mortar in all their joints, within and without; – and all persons constructing tombs and neglecting to comply with the present regulations, shall cause said tomb to be demolished at their own expense, and shall besides pay a fine of fifty dollars, one half being for the benefit of the informer, and the other for that of the corporation.[6]

All the Ordinances contrary to the regulations of the present, are, and remain repealed.

A. Peychaud*, Recorder.

Approved the 5th Aug. 1822
                                                                   J. Roffignac, Mayor
               [Certified]                                        Jules Davreac.
Aug. 16.                                                     Secretary to the Mayor.


*Interesting to note that this A. Peychaud is the same Peychaud of "Peychaud's Bitters" fame.


[1] Interment = inground burial.  Here is where tombs start showing up - not because of water but because they thought it was more sanitary.
[2] The introduction of above ground tombs believing them to be more sanitary.
[3] The former Girod Street Cemetery
[4] St. Louis Cemetery #2
[5] The wall vault surrounding the cemeteries did not exist prior to 1822.
[6] These are the first legal guidelines for the construction of tombs, which made their appearance the previous year, 1821.

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