In April, 2002, an exhibit "Dead Space: Defining the New Orleans Creole Cemetery" was presented at the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania. The exhibit featured thought provoking text, illustrated with evocative images of cemeteries, places of memory, life and death.
Dead Space Exhibit
- Dead Space Introduction
- The Geography of Death
- Monuments, Memory & Landscape
- Identity & Preservation
- Constructing the Creole Identity
- Cities of the Dead
- St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 & the Creation of the Modern Creole Cemetery
- Cemetery Life - Interment & Visitation
The early cemeteries - St. Louis Number One and Number Two, …were quickly surrounded by the growing city. Today they are strange oases. One walks from a street teeming with life into a silent town of the dead. Decay is everywhere.—Mary Cable, 1980
The Dead Space Studio (2001-2002) began as a reconsideration of previous research and conservation efforts concerning New Orleans' "Cities of the Dead." It has sought to go beyond architectural analysis and the physical restoration of the tombs and monuments to issues of past and contemporary meanings and associations of these places as cultural urban landscapes and the related aspects of use, abandonment, ritual, and preservation of historical necrogeographies.
As re-evaluation has progressed, the work focused further on an exploration of how earlier site histories have influenced current attitudes and values, and how these, partly as invented narratives, have helped to shape motives and methods of preservation of these places over time. Such concerns are related to the larger cultural questions of the 'construction of identity' and the 'invention of tradition' that have been of interest to historians, anthropologists, and sociologists for at least a decade. Moreover, they beg renewed consideration of such places—as J.B. Jackson has long observed—as social constructs formed over time rather than only as designed entities, "...regarded first of all in terms of living rather than looking." Consequently, the role of history, personal and collective memory, and changing concepts of space and time—as well as death—in the making of such places all need to be better understood. In so doing, we can begin to reconstruct a greater understanding of New Orleans' early cemeteries in which physical transformations and cultural meanings can be studied by working back through time to reveal past realities and current conditions.
Consideration of these issues in practical terms has recently introduced a more critical approach to the actual preservation of places of cultural and historical significance. Today, heritage preservation, tourism, and development have become common partners in utilizing local natural and cultural resources in an effort to attract investment and compete in an ever-tightening global economy. Too often, the result has been the denaturing and ultimate destruction of places rather than sustaining them through a balance of tradition and change responsive to the value and significance of the historic environment.
Despite national trends in declining interest in visiting the deceased, New Orleans has long remained fixated on death and its cemeteries. As a result, with tourism increasing daily to these sites, commercialization, overzealous restoration, and looting have impacted them in new and adverse ways. Underlying these problems is the more fundamental question of the continued relevancy and practicality of these places as sacred burial sites, an issue confronting many such older urban cemeteries and burial grounds. Shifting and declining populations, redevelopment of surrounding land, space limitations, and changes in burial practice and religious observance have all challenged the primary function of these places for the interment and veneration of the dead.
Conversely, increasing pressures from heritage tourism have presented problems of visitor safety, owner liability, and access, while the rising market value of cemetery art has escalated the need for better resource protection from theft and vandalism. Yet tourism, as an associated activity beyond the primary physical and spiritual necessities of burial, has been an important influence since the early nineteenth century in shaping public perceptions of the city and its Creole culture as well as the sites themselves. Consideration of how these places were perceived and experienced in their complex roles as both sacred and secular sites and what such places mean to us today in our desire for authentic as well as leisure experiences may hold the key to their continuity and successful preservation. This exhibit is but a prologue to the myriad of issues and sites to be explored through multiple lines of investigation and analysis to understand the rich and complex information to be gained from a cultural landscape approach to these places. In so doing it is hoped that their value, meaning, and preservation will be explored from the broadest perspectives possible.
Opening quote: Mary Cable, Lost New Orleans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980, 127-128.
Text adapted from Frank G. Matero, Dead Space: Defining the New Orleans' Creole Cemetery, Exhibit at Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, April 2002.
In nothing does habit and general and long-continued practice guide a community more despotically than in the disposal of the bodies of the dead. — Benjamin H. B. Latrobe. Impressions Respecting New Orleans (1819)
If man is the only animal who buries his dead, then the cemetery, as the final repository, represents the largest material correlate related to the rituals of death, including commemoration. In its layout and design, monuments, tombs and grave markers, motifs and inscriptions, plantings, and votives, the cemetery encompasses our personal and collective responses in confronting death, and in so doing, it reveals much about our attitudes toward life.
According to contemporary scholarship, death and dying have become significant topics as they relate to the legal, medical, and moral issues of living and dying in the twenty-first century. AIDS, extended life expectancy, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and abortion have forced Americans to confront mortality despite an elaborate avoidance of death. Most Americans today have distanced themselves from death; many have never seen a corpse or attended the death of a family member or friend, a situation unlikely a century earlier given the frequency of disease and epidemics, the close proximity of the family, and former prevailing attitudes of private and personal mourning. The benefits of medical advancement and health care have meant a longer life for most Americans. As a result, most dying now occurs in the hospital and hospice away from home and subsequent rituals of wake and burial are all arranged and occur by third parties (e.g., funeral establishments) with minimal or passive input from the family and religious institutions.
This situation is by no means unique to North America and its development did not occur overnight but rather gradually during the social and economic changes that befell most industrialized nations beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Recent scholarship has begun to critically examine these changes in beliefs and attitudes toward death and the associated customs of the mourning, disposal, and commemoration of the dead in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and North America. Both general and specific studies by historians, archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and folklorists have long-focused on the design, typology, and stylistic development of gravestones, tombs, and entire burial grounds and cemeteries as material culture and cultural landscapes. What has generally been ignored, however, is the significant role secondary activities such as tourism and preservation have played in the ideological and physical transformation of these places over time beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.
To behold the American cemetery today is to challenge contemporary society's amnesia, its obliviousness to traditional monumentality and history. To celebrate the cemetery is to embrace a postmodern predilection for the convergence of history and memory and to recognize individual subjective emotion as well as the universal human condition. In its myriad of individual tombs and markers, the cemetery evokes the human social community. Behind their walls, New Orleans' early cemeteries still provide a place for contemplative reflection, removed from the intrusions of the city. In their narrow interconnected alleys, they confound like a maze taking visitors on an instructive journey past former lives. Through the successive chronological epitaphs of the deceased, they link past to present, each tomb standing as both text and artifact, offering a group portrait of New Orleans' complex society through time. In its collective, contained, and detached landscape the cemetery presents a parallel urban world that truly exists on the other side of the looking glass.
Text adapted from Frank G. Matero, Dead Space: Defining the New Orleans' Creole Cemetery, Exhibit at Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, April 2002.
Monuments and places, like rituals, are ways in which societies remember, whereby the point of memory and commemoration is the joining of past with present. — Bradley 1993
If we are to identify and understand the nature and implications of certain physical relationships with locales established through past human thought and experience, we must do it through the study of place. Places are contexts for human experience, constructed in movement, memory, encounter, and association. This notion of the landscape as memory and experience has enjoyed increased attention as demonstrated through the rise in popularity of historic preservation and urban and public history. The identification of traditional or folk landscapes as settings or preserves of cultural memory can be traced as early as the late nineteenth century in the study and preservation of folk cultures in Northern Europe.
Preservation of individual monuments as icons of cultural and historical identity began earlier in the late eighteenth century with the formation of modern European nations based on the aggregation and segregation of different ethnic groups. As early as 1902 these preservation efforts reached such extremes that Alois Riegl described the trend as a 'modern cult' whereby historical monuments served as the primary vehicles for both the transmission and reception of changing cultural ideas and values over time.
Since the time of Ptolemy's Geography, Western tradition has viewed landscape as an inscribed surface, measured, depicted, and described with the names of people, things, and events as distinct personal. Opposite to this view of a landscape of memory, is the perspective that holds landscape as memory; that is, as a template directly participating in the process of memory-work or image-making. Regardless of whether the landscape assumes the passive (of) or active (as) voice of memory, all landscapes depend on natural, semi-natural and artificial features or natural phenomena to enhance or establish the significance of and attachments to a particular place. While the act of remembering is acutely human, the associations specific memorials and places have at any given time will change.
In their most direct engagement, all cemeteries and burying grounds are certainly landscapes of memory; the markers and epitaphs providing critical information about the deceased and their life in an effort for individuals, families, and communities to record and remember. However some necrogeographies, like the nineteenth century picturesque rural cemeteries of America, were designed from the beginning as landscapes as memory, openly displaying a complex assemblage of monuments, plantings, geometries, and passage to create a symbolic environment where nature expressed the divine and architecture referenced past times and other places in remembering the personal dead as well as the universal human condition.
Text adapted from Frank G. Matero, Dead Space: Defining the New Orleans' Creole Cemetery, Exhibit at Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, April 2002.
To the true city-born, city-bread heart, nothing less than the city itself is home, and nothing less than the city family; and, more than in our hearts, do we look in the city for the memorials that keep our dead in vital reach of us.—Grace King (1895)
As historian Thomas Kselman has noted, "the creation of the modern cemetery and the inculcation of a devout atmosphere toward those who lie there are among the most important innovations that occurred in the nineteenth-century cult of the dead." Yet how have these sites been transformed through the intervening years? In America during the latter half of the nineteenth century, many older colonial burying grounds, long discontinued as primary places of interment, became powerful symbols of veneration in the construction of a national mythology based on the memorializing of those associated with the origins and founding of the country. Similar to the interest paid to houses and sites associated with Revolutionary personages and a colonial past, seventeenth and eighteenth century burial grounds provided tangible connections for the commemoration of individuals as public ancestors as well as the national virtues associated with their thoughts and deeds.
This commemoration of earlier shared ideals also sought to heal the social and psychological trauma inflicted by the Civil War. Such interests were also largely promoted in affirming the primacy and dominance of Anglo-Americans as the primi genitori of the American nation, especially as waves of new immigrants from non-English speaking countries flooded into the United States at the end of the century.
As early as 1840, Thomas Bridgeman crusaded for the preservation of Boston's ancient burying grounds, providing one of the first scholarly arguments for the cultural and historical value of American burial grounds and their protection. Similarly antiquarian interest in the study and recordation of early tombs and grave markers as stylistic and epigraphic documents began to focus attention on the preservation of these artifacts and grounds. At Trinity Church, New York City, the church fathers, citing the sanctity of hallowed ground, erected a large monument over the unmarked graves of martyred colonists to prevent the city from cutting a street through its ancient churchyard. A broader-based commemoration of the anonymous dead through place-event association was promulgated nationally by the creation of Gettysburg in 1863, ushering in the subsequent proliferation of battlefield preservation in America.
Opening quote: Grace King. New Orleans: The Place and the People (1895)
Like the Vieux Carré itself, the cemeteries with their dense concentration of above-ground tombs, as well as the associated Catholic rituals of public funeral processions and All Saints' Day, provided an endless source of foreign commentary.
The early Creole cemeteries of New Orleans allow consideration of a slightly different development and transformation of the early burial ground as cultural landscape beyond religious use and local genealogical and patriotic commemoration. The city's unusual and complex history involving a rich mix of Native American, French, Spanish, and black African inhabitants made New Orleans an obvious exotic 'other' to the largely English-speaking northern European-based populations of the greater Unites States. With the influx of foreigners to the city after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, visitors experienced first-hand these cultural differences, leaving a legacy of observations in word and image. Beginning in the 1850s, the old 'Creole' or 'Catholic cemeteries' were frequently cited as among the most interesting attractions to be visited by foreigners. This culturally external activity of tourism must be considered in understanding the physical and perceptual transformation of these places through time.
By the late nineteenth century, older American cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, New York and New Orleans promoted their civic persona through the construction of rich, historically-based identities. These official narratives—part fact, part fiction—drew from local elements including race and ethnicity, social customs, language, music, cuisine, art, and architecture. Origin stories based on a dramatis persona of founding fathers and mothers set against a backdrop of historical locales, provided unique traditions that could be easily used to attract visitors and justify local political and economic development. It is within this construction of heritage that much of European and American preservation developed as a social and public movement.
Of the major historic American cities experiencing rapid growth and change during the nineteenth century, perhaps none was more successful in celebrating and promoting its uniqueness through a richly constructed heritage than New Orleans. This was based first and foremost on the construction of a Creole identity, whereby the city and its people were defined by real and imaginary historical characters, places, events, foods, music, and stories that were consumed by increasingly mobile middle class visitors from Europe and the American north. With its confluence of French, Spanish, Indian, African, and Caribbean traditions, New Orleans presented a complex and exotic cosmopolitan 'other' to Anglo or northern European visitors. This urbane cultural oddity was further exaggerated by the physical isolation, state of preservation, and appearance of the old Creole city or 'French Quarter' compared to the rapidly expanding 'American sector' after 1803.
The clearly defined grid of the original Franco-Hispanic city—its form and origin reflected in its moniker, Vieux Carré—with its characteristic buildings, people, streets, and lingering Old World customs, provided a concentrated and contained setting for exhibiting Creole culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, earlier city directories gave way to commercially produced guidebooks extolling the history and sights of the French Quarter, building on the popularization of the area established earlier through the Creole stories of George Washington Cable, Lafcadio Hearn, and Grace King. Depicted as a proud, stubborn, and doomed survivor, one guidebook described the Quarter as "… very strange to Northern eyes … A little world, a world apart—in its habits, its recreations and mode of life and ideas … clinging still to the ancestral way and old ideals …. Conservative no doubt it is; changing little, yet changing nevertheless; passively accepting to-day's innovations; yielding to the inevitable, to the irresistible pressure of improvements along its upper limits particularly."
No other city east of the Mississippi could boast of a resident population still so intimately associated with a traditional setting—the houses, shops, churches, squares, and streets and all the attending customs and life-ways—associated with the past and the place.
In the evening Mr. R and myself visited the Catholic cemetery which I consider one of the most beautiful curiosities of New Orleans. It is a perfect miniature of a handsome city, it is a city of the dead. — Joseph W. Fawcett, Journal of Jos. W. Fawcett, 1840
There is no architecture in New Orleans, except in the cemeteries. They bury their dead in vaults above ground. These vaults have a resemblance to houses--sometimes to temples; are built of marble, generally; are architecturally graceful and shapely; they face the walks and driveways of the cemetery; and when one moves through the midst of a thousand or so of them, and sees their white roofs and gables stretching into the distance on every hand, the phrase 'city of the dead' has all at once a meaning to him. Many of the cemeteries are beautiful and kept in perfect order...if those people down there would live as neatly while they were alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages to it.
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1880
Of the many aspects of Creole culture that were celebrated as unique and promoted as visitor attractions, the city's above-ground cemeteries ranked among the most popular along with the French Opera House, the French Market, and Madame John's Legacy. Mark Twain was far from being the first or only visitor to these 'cities of the dead' and the obvious comparison of these necropoli with the living city did not go unnoticed, causing author and early preservationist Grace King in 1897 to remark, "[St. Louis I] is the mother cemetery, … the Vieux Carré of the dead; as confused and closely packed a quarter as the living metropolis, whose ghastly counterpart it is."
Nearly all visitors beginning with New Yorker John Pintard in 1801, commented on the unusual mortuary customs of the city, and in particular its disposal of the dead and the associated rituals, the most notable being Toussants or All-Saints' Day. To the visiting stranger, these places and customs offered both a sentimental as well as sublime experience. Wandering among the dense maze of house-like tombs with their French and Spanish epitaphs commemorating valorous deaths by the Creole custom of the duel, or recording an untimely demise from the city's many yellow fever epidemics, the visitor was at once confronted with a vision of eternal rest quite unlike the sobriety of the eighteenth century Protestant burying ground or the contrived arcadia of the new progressive rural cemeteries. By the mid nineteenth century, cemeteries such as Père La Chaise in Paris, Mount Auburn in Boston, Greenwood in Brooklyn, and Mount Laurel in Philadelphia were conscious modern comparisons, conceived not only for the interment and commemoration of the dead, but as public parks with architecture, sculpture, and plantings for viewing and contemplation. These modern cemetery designs, derived from eighteenth century English landscape precedents, reflected a new belief in nature as a regenerative force and associated with a new imagery for religious contemplation and the commemoration of the dead.
During the first half of the nineteenth century, romantic literature reflected the intense feelings that were supposed to accompany a visit to the tomb. Already in the late eighteenth century, poets drew inspiration from cemeteries; however by the early nineteenth century such places were meant to elicit, like Wordsworth's definition of poetry itself, "a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." For the nineteenth century visitor, these places were to be experienced through the senses rather than the intellect, through imagination instead of reason. Central to the experience of the cemetery visit was consolation and moral illumination that was to flow from remembered attachments. Such respect paid to the dead by the living was a natural sentiment that could not be denied without seriously compromising public morality. Unlike earlier medieval European practices of mass burial and exhumation, individual plot ownership and visitation not only restored the place of the individual in death, but also reinforced the family and evoked association with the ancient classical tradition of the cult of ancestor worship through family burial and tombs. Nineteenth century cemeteries became centers for family shrines and family outings and by extension the feelings of community and solidarity could be extended to the village and city or social group as a whole.
New Orleans' first extramural cemeteries with their planned layout of family and society tombs marked a significant and early departure in North America from the impersonal and macabre European traditions that the later rural cemeteries reacted so totally against. Yet the most striking characteristic of these cemeteries was the tradition of above ground burial in tomb houses of great concentration resembling a fantastic miniature city, located behind a high enclosure. Above ground burial, though uncommon in Europe and North America, was not unknown, especially among the French and Spanish elite. Individual burial, enclosure, and extramural siting—aspects of the first St. Louis Cemetery—were requirements that developed in response to the observed overcrowding of many European urban burial grounds by the mid-eighteenth century and were eventually legislated, most notably in France. While the construction of a walled precinct outside the city limits satisfied concerns about deadly cemetery emanations—the miasmes fetides or cadaverous gases associated with disease and epidemic—it also established clear and precise boundaries between the space of the living and the dead. Isolation protected the urban population from the diseases of putrefaction; enclosure protected the dead from marauding animals and also made possible a special atmosphere for contemplation by those visiting loved ones, a practice that later grew in popularity during the nineteenth century. Unlike the often reported public activities in the earlier parish churchyard where markets, meetings, and other forms of social intercourse occurred, eighteenth century reformers pushed for a more differentiated burial environment enforcing a quieter contemplative mood ultimately achieved by their relocation to the outskirts of towns and cities and the enclosure and policing of these spaces.
Even in death, the cultural traditions and distinctions of Catholic Creole versus Protestant American were preserved and reinforced.
New Orleans' earliest burial grounds were established in close proximity to the young city, first along the high ground of the natural levee, and later in designated lots outside the city limits but according to the projected urban grid. According to early accounts and archaeological investigation, interment for most of the early population was below ground, the disadvantages being obvious during periods of flooding. According to earlier European traditions, only the clergy and citizens of the highest status warranted burial within the sacred precinct of the parochial church. In 1789, after two previous relocations due to city expansion, the cemetery was finally moved outside the city ramparts in cleared and drained land known as the King's Commons between the inhabited city and the cypress swamps of Lake Pontchartrain beyond. The result of European civil and ecclesiastical policies responding to urban crowding and the fear of disease and a disastrous flood and Yellow Fever epidemic the year before, the city reassigned the dead to an extramural realm away from the living in terrain traditionally associated with the undesirable, unhealthy, and dangerous. Here outside the ramparts were located the city's drainage canals, as well as the expansive cypress and palmetto swamp. By the late eighteenth century, Baron Carondelet's commercial canal and basin were constructed on the southeastern perimeter of the new cemetery and efforts were made to drain the swamp. Later in the early nineteenth century, with the development of the surrounding neighborhood into the Faubourg Tremé, the cemetery would find itself encroached yet again, this time by housing, lumber warehouses and later, by train sheds, earning it the name, “the backyards”. By the turn of the century, the area around the St. Louis cemeteries became home to the social fringes of society through the legalization of prostitution in the neighborhood labeled "The District" or Storyville.
The new Creole cemetery, as first realized at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, was located outside the city ramparts, a short distance from the fortified northwest gate. The site, originally aligned along the northern rampart and oriented with the city grid, was defined and enclosed by first a wooden palisade and later a high brick wall, portions of which doubled as tiered brick burial vaults. The location of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and later St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 (1823) north of the city conveniently avoided, if only temporarily, encroachment by later urban development along the river to the west and east. This first extramural cemetery, laid out in rowed clusters, was later refined and regularized at St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 as a carefully conceived plan of four ordered squares extending and responding to the city grid with a hierarchy of alleys and well-placed monuments and tombs of exceptional design. Like its more renowned French counterpart, Père La Chaise, opened in 1804 in response to the burial requirements of Napoleonic law, both cemeteries reflected earlier and current reform efforts to create hygienic, planned burial precincts outside yet nearby the city to allow regular visitation, and to provide individual rather than common graves. Unlike Père La Chaise, whose picturesque garden-like atmosphere was quickly transformed by the dense erection of monuments, New Orleans' St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, was laid out in a grid-like fashion allowing easy accommodation for the inevitable accumulation and build-up of tombs over time. This linear arrangement also countered earlier burial placement according to wealth and rank, and was reflective of egalitarian and rationalist sentiments of the late eighteenth century.
While many of the tomb designs in the Saint Louis cemeteries reference the prevailing taste and symbolism of those in contemporary French cemeteries during the early decades of the nineteenth century, the undeniable advantages of above-ground burial in a city below sea-level caused the form of these personal chapel tombs to be adapted into true burial vaults. In this case, the chapel space originally designed for the veneration of the deceased by the living gave way to housing the dead many times over through recycled above-ground vault space, an advantage not to be lost in a city with limited land for burial. Early nineteenth century views and descriptions of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 suggest early burial here was on or below grade resulting in the characteristic low lying platform or stepped tombs. With the popularization of European tomb designs, and especially those from France, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was quickly transformed, creating in this process of adaptation, a new typology of mortuary monuments on American soil.
No doubt the specific design and construction of these tombs were the result of input from client, designer, and craftsman, and reflective of available materials, personal taste, and prevalent traditions, as well as social status and economic means. Nevertheless, local customs still predominated, and all but the most expensive of tombs were constructed of stucco-covered brick like the Creole buildings of the city. Reflecting the same architectural differences observed between the Creole quarter and the American sector, exposed brick tombs of imported hard fired red brick are only to be found in the reserved Protestant section of Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1. Even in death, the cultural traditions and distinctions of Catholic Creole versus Protestant American were preserved and reinforced. Similar to the necessary expansion of growing households, tombs were often modified to accommodate additional vaults and hybrid types were eventually created reflecting and anticipating additional stories and excessively tall parapet fronts.
Over the grave of one recently killed in a duel was a tablet, with the inscription "Mort, victime de l'honneur!" Should anyone propose to set up a similar tribute to the memory of a duelist at Mount Auburn, near Boston, a sensation would be created … —Sir Charles Lyell (1849)
Nineteenth century accounts describe in detail the experiences awaiting the curious visitor in the sight of a freshly dug watery grave or the sounds and smells of above-ground corporal decomposition. During the city's frequent yellow fever epidemics, the cemeteries were far from the peaceful respites they were expected to be or as they appear today (tours aside) as undertakers' carriages clogged the alleys and caskets piled high awaiting interment. So severe was the situation for prompt burial during these frequent periods due to the fear of contagion, that the air became thick with the stench of decaying corpses, mixed with the fragrance of flowers, and visitors occasionally witnessed fresh body parts carried off by marauding dogs and pigs.
These horrors were a powerful, but not uncommon, reminder of the realities of a New Orleans death, despite the promises of resurrection and the aesthetic trappings of a well-appointed tomb. Nearly all visitors, beginning with John Pintard in 1801 and throughout the century, commented on the grim realities of a New Orleans' burial.
It is of little consequence whether one's carcase [sic]is given a prey to crayfish on land—or the catfish of the Mississipi[sic]—I believe in either case of burial [above or below ground]—a body is speedily devoured and transmigrated in crayfish or catfish—dressed by a French cook & feasted upon by a greasy Monk—a fair lady—a petit maitre or a savage who in turn supply some future banquet … Give my bones terra firma I pray.
Surviving descriptions and graphic images also help us to understand how nineteenth century visitors experienced these places. All foreign visitors found the St. Louis cemeteries to be curiosities, however their response to above ground burial varied widely. This was based in part on Christian belief in the resurrection and a deep-seated aversion to the loss of individuality resulting from the local custom of exhumation of individual remains for vault reoccupation by the family. Fear of disease associated with corporal decomposition, especially in the context of the city's many epidemics, led many professionals and free-thinkers, beginning with Benjamin H. B. Latrobe to denounce interment in favor of cremation, despite its violation to Christian doctrine.
Beyond the grim realities of death and dying associated with such places, many visitors found visual entertainment in the dense assembly and stylistic variety of the myriad of tombs. This taste for the architectural panorama as spectacle was already a well-established form of popular visual entertainment beginning in the late eighteenth century. Yet, unlike the two-dimensional forms of the dioramas and cycloramas depicting modern cityscapes, exotic foreign places, and historical events, cemeteries such as Père La Chaise and the St. Louis Cemeteries offered the visitor actual, albeit miniature, environments of classical and exotic architecture and sculpture in concentrated form. St. Louis Cemetery was described by one visitor in 1835:
When I entered the gateway, I was struck with surprise and admiration. Though destitute of trees, the cemetery is certainly more deserving, from its peculiarly novel and unique appearance, of the attention of strangers, than any other in the United States … there are innumerable isolated tombs, of all sizes and shapes, and descriptions, built above ground. The idea of a Lilliputian city was at first suggested to my mind on looking down this extensive avenue. The tombs in their Moorish dwellings, temples, chapels, palaces, mosques…and structures of almost every kind … Many of the tombs were…miniature Grecian temples; while others resembled French, or Spanish edifices, like those found in "Old Castile".
Such imagery recalls the great vedute tradition of eighteenth century artists such as Piranesi and the interest in eclectic architectural assemblage in the follies and monuments of English and French picturesque garden landscape design. This taste for architectural assemblage and scenographic spectacle found an audience in the popular entertainment of the panorama, diorama, and cycloramas, and at midways of the many international expositions and fairs. However it was the real density, eclecticism, and picturesque vistas which gave the New Orleans’ cemeteries their public and exotic appeal, judging from the many articles and images appearing in popular nineteenth century national serial publications. These sites along with the French Quarter's archaic Creole houses, streetscapes and denizens were also recorded by local photographer George François Mugnier. His composed panoramic bird’s-eye views and claustrophobic vistas of tombscapes made for the tourist market during the 1880's and 90's, confirm this fascination with the cemetery as a miniature city of the dead.
By 1895 St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the city’s first extramural cemetery was closed to new tomb interments, 106 years after its inception and guidebooks began to describe it as "… fast falling into ruin and decay". As a result, one of the city's first preservation efforts was begun around 1923 through the formation of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Tombs. Organized by concerned citizens and led by Grace King, noted southern author and historian, the group began a project to survey and restore significant tombs in an effort to create a landscape of local genealogy.
Opening quote: Sir Charles Lyell, A second visit to the United States of North America. Vol II, New York: Harper and Bros, 1849, 96.
The cemeteries of New Orleans are peculiar to the city, and are visited by all strangers. — A. Oakey Hall, 1851
Like all necrogeographies, New Orleans' early Creole cemeteries were landscapes of memory; however, their later fame as 'cities of the dead' was more the result of an acquired reputation from the observations and writings of foreign visitors who found the acquired sublime and picturesque dualities of these places irresistible. This culturally external appreciation helped transform these early burial sites into theatrical landscapes as memory. Today a visit to the city's early cemeteries can still evoke an intense emotional response and personal reflection on that great universal given the powerful imagery of the crowded tombs and the contained isolation of the setting. Still exotic to the majority of visitors who come daily on guided tours during their stay in the French Quarter, the tombs and their inscriptions afford tangible access to the city's history and its many past personalities. Here the past truly is a foreign country delivering the same promises of entertainment and escape to the modern tourist.
At the level of place experience, the cemetery still retains much integrity and authenticity through its original tombs and intact tombscapes. While cognition creates places, recognition extends them through time. For both, memory is a powerful agent. Nevertheless, new perceptions and new values require reconsideration in terms of how the site has transformed and how it is to be preserved and presented today. This demands identification of the place-defining qualities and how they will be treated—sustained, altered, or reclaimed. Unfortunately, many of the tombs sadly reflect the changing demographics of American inner cities and a loss of social tradition in their ruined and dilapidated state. Efforts to address this in the form of reuse-based restoration and tourist development as an alternative to devotional attendance and upkeep have had mixed results leading in most cases to no or over-restoration and unsympathetic uses and settings.
These sites' acquired picturesque qualities and sentimental associations were highly valued by the late nineteenth century judging from the many written descriptions and popular images. Such qualities of physical transformation through gentle weathering and overgrown vegetation were physical proof of age and the transitory nature of all things, especially potent and relevant for memory landscapes. To our modern eyes, this critical, subtle and often contrived aspect of these places has been misunderstood and confused with dilapidation and ruin in an effort to confront abandonment and redundancy and streamline maintenance in the name of economy. Establishing a conservation program which understands and re-establishes these important place-defining aspects and values while accommodating changing associations and new forms of tourism is now of critical importance for these sites. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is now at the crossroads of transformation, passing from a mixed use traditional place of cultivated decay to a constructed ‘heritage attraction’. Such remains the challenge and paradox for all heritage where tradition recedes and preservation begins.