Friday, July 8, 2016

Recently I took a trip to New Orleans for my birthday. Of course while there I wanted to check out all the cemeteries in town. The main cemetery in the middle of the French Quarter, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, is no longer accessible to the public. To enter the cemetery you must go in with a tour group. This rule was instituted in an attempt to help curb vandalism to the graves. Vandalism has been a long standing problem in New Orleans cemeteries, the most recent memorable occasion was the vandalism to Marie Laveau’s grave. Someone snuck into the cemetery and painted the whole tomb neon pink. However vandalism is not all that meets the eye, some grave markings aren’t just run of the mill vandalism, some are actually from living descendants themselves. 
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
When entering into a historic cemetery with living relatives you must always consider that not all graves are abandoned. Just because the cemetery may be old and in disrepair, does not mean each individual grave is not being visited. A visit to old cemeteries in Florida can attest to this as well as New Orleans. Off the beaten path in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, there is a grave with bullet shells, candles, and X marks written on the brick of the vault. Some may glance at the grave and think it has been vandalized, the burnt candles and cards forgotten items tossed aside by tourists. However, this particular grave is visited frequently by living descendants who have the right to visit their relative as much as they please, without a tour guide. The difference between these writings left by relatives vs. vandalism mimicked by tourists? Any tour guide will tell you, the families use biodegradable mediums like dirt, brick dust, or less commonly chalk. Any rain or sometime in the elements and their markings will fade. While no markings on the old bricks will completely go without damage over time, it is much better for the grave in the long run. Tourists however use markers, lipstick, and even paint. Leaving permanent markings that will not go away without cleaning and restoration efforts. To make matters worse, tourists are just that, visitors who are leaving permanent damage to monuments they may never see again. While you don’t have to be someone’s relative to pay respects to the dead and leave flowers or flags, you should never mark on a grave. Even if it is a “tourist tradition” as in the case of Marie Laveau’s grave which was written on for years. It is a miracle the tomb is still standing today. Not only is it disrespectful but sometimes these “tourist traditions” steal from actual traditions. 
Marie Laveau's grave now (with me standing in front)
A close up of a grave with markings and a saints card

A Painted grave 
You don’t have to be in New Orleans to see a colorful variety of burial traditions. I mean colorful literally, there are many cemeteries in Florida with brightly painted graves. Pink and blue graves can be found throughout the Masonic cemetery in Palm Coast and there are at least two in San Sebastian Cemetery in St. Augustine as well. These graves however have not been vandalized, they were purposefully painted by the family. It is important to remember when volunteering to help clean a cemetery what could be vandalism or neglect vs. what is not. Shells are a common grave good in Florida, and frequently left scattered around and on the tops of above ground vaults and markers. Empty bottles and coins are also common. When volunteering it’s important to never move things if you are not sure what their purpose is. 
Beads, stones and some shells on top of a grave in Lafayette Cemetery

Whether you are visiting a historic cemetery on vacation or one in your home town, always remember to be respectful and not disturb the graves. If everyone does their part, these historic cemeteries will be around to visit for generations to come. Working with FPAN I have been lucky enough to be able to clean, monitor, and record several cemeteries around town and have found it to be a very rewarding experience. I have always been fascinated by cemeteries ever since I was a child. There is so much variation in architecture, headstones, and grave goods between cemeteries that no two are the same. It is important to preserve cemeteries, not only out of respect for those that have passed, but also as part of our cultural heritage. Cemeteries have more to teach us than meets the eye. 
Text and images by Megan Liebold, FPAN Staff

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