Dead Residents of New Orleans

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Elsa and I could squeeze in only a bit of sight-seeing given the tight programming schedule of World Horror Convention / Bram Stoker Award Weekend. The sight we saw? New Orleans Cemetery #1, of course. We weren’t the only horror writers on the tour. In fact, the tour guide — Jennifer from Haunted History Tours — was the childhood friend of John Palisano who also roamed the houses of the dead. Jennifer gave us quite the tour, hitting the high points of New Orleans’ architecture, history, voodou and, obviously, burial practices. Jennifer’s talk reminded me that how we treat death is an important part of life.
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The cemetery itself felt like a subdivision for dead people, as fitting a “necropolis.” The white surrounding walls established a gated-community, if you will, and inside there were streets, single-family dwellings, yard fences, high rises and even urban renewal– I gather several of the older residents were, ahem, displaced to make room for Nicolas Cage’s spiffy new burial pyramid.

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Some of the dead residents are still vital members of the New Orleans community. Marie Laveau’s resting place, among others, is covered with mementos and XXX’s made by those seeking the assistance of such puissant departed. This voudou practice reminds me of the Catholic petitioning the saints to pray for intercession– saints who are by definition, dead.

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One way in which life mingles unpleasantly with death is in cases of premature burial. Jennifer was a treasure of deliciously morbid details, like how death in these cases often came from starvation, not suffocation since the tombs were not air-tight. She pointed out the customized graves fitted quite literally with bells and whistles for the unfortunately interred to signal the living. These techniques frequently back-fired because decaying tendons contract and pull the “dead ringer.” When watchmen on the “graveyard shift” hastily dis-interred these corpses, they often found “evidence” of vampires: the receding flesh of unembalmed bodies made it appear that hair and nails continued to grow, shriveled lips made teeth more prominent and blood tended to well up in the bellies, suggesting a recent midnight snack. Jennifer’s specialized knowledge was exhaustive and wonderfully ghoulish.

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Grave markers themselves were subject to decay, resulting in wonderful rubble. Death dilapidated.
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Though I am as morbid as the next horror-fan, my favorite part of the cemetery were the plants that sprouted in the nooks. Let me stop just short of some trite observation about life abounding in the midst of death. What appealed to me primarily was the aesthetic contrast, the subtle greens against the brick red and stone white and the organic leaf shapes juxtaposed to the rectilinear ruins.

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