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Digging for stories

Creative WritingPosted by Barbara Thu, June 06, 2019 21:21:56

It’s not the most obvious tourist destination: a cemetery.

But bear with me here. I’m going to explain why a trip to a graveyard was a high point of a visit to New Orleans (and why, as a writer, it had me rubbing my hands).

When I had the chance to give a conference paper in The Big Easy last month, I was determined not to go all that way without taking in some of the local culture. A few internet searches kept coming up with the same advice: visit the cemeteries.

What’s so interesting about the way the dead are disposed of in N’awlins? They can’t bury them, for one thing. The city’s built below sea level. So instead, they created the most elaborate and beautiful marble chambers above ground. They’re worth a wander just for that.

But go with someone who knows their local history and you’ll come away with some mind-boggling facts. For example: you’ll see that the mausoleums usually have several small doorways and you’ll learn that they can house dozens or even hundreds of the family deceased.

Not because they’re like the Tardis and bigger on the inside than the outside. But because they’re also nicknamed “clay ovens”. The temperature inside can get up to 500 degrees – so basically, although they’re buried, the bodies actually get cremated in those monuments.

After the official mourning period of a year and a day, the front can be reopened and the ashes removed to a lower level, making space for the next of the family’s dear departed.

As a writer, the phrase “What if…” is never far from my tongue. So what if a second family member passed away before that mourning period was up? They can actually “rent” a grave until the time comes for them to move into their last resting place.

What if a family runs out of money and can’t contribute to the monument’s upkeep? That depends on lots of things – but their dear departed may well have to move out.

There are several of these cemeteries around the city, but I went to St. Louis No 1, the oldest, a few blocks from the Mississippi and opened in 1789. (Be aware: for this one, you need to go with an official guide. The Save Our Cemeteries group wants to protect it from vandalism and part of your fee will go to their restoration projects).

Here lie everyone from slave owners to nineteenth century mayors to pirates and chess champions. The chambers are not all crumbling away - that modern pyramid structure that looks like it’s just landed belongs to actor Nicholas Cage, who’s bought it to guarantee his future resting place.

One of the most visited tombs belongs to Marie Laveau, the famous voodoo queen. Because she was a former hairdresser as well as a voodoo priestess (interesting side hustle!), it’s scattered with offerings of ribbons and hair slides from those who hope she might still help them out from beyond the grave.

Writers: I defy you to wander out of here without a dozen story ideas. Just make sure you go with someone who knows where the bodies are buried (sorry!) and will help you dig the dirt (sorry again! It’s the tabloid journo in me).

You’ll also learn all sorts of snippets about the local history, cultural attitudes and all that jazz, so morbid as it sounds, put the interred on your itinerary.

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