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Fact checking what may be a grave error indeed

Renee Peck (photo by Jason Kruppa)

Renee Peck (photo by Jason Kruppa)

The current accusatory and hyperbolic election cycle has spawned an unprecedented era of frenzied fact-checking. Too often, the results seem tilted toward the editorial attitude of the fact-checker. So I tend to take “facts” these days with the proverbial grain of salt.

Perhaps that’s why a recent Louisiana-related article in The New York Times raised my hackles, demanding some deep and unbiased fact-checking — particularly in the face of that imminent and potentially world-changing date circled in scarlet on all of our calendars.

I’m talking, of course, about Halloween.

The Times story outlined a new app that keeps tabs on coffins that float away in the aftermath of hurricanes and floods. You have to admit that this sets a new bar for technical aptitude and social entrepreneurship, as it seeks to solve a problem that may well be unique to our state. But here is the offending line that caught my eye, and set my pulse to racing:

The quickest solution [to errant coffins] would be to bury the dead six feet deep. But the practice of interring in aboveground vaults — which has nothing to do with a high water table, despite what the tour guides in New Orleans may say — is a tradition that goes back centuries in Louisiana, one that would not be easily given up.

Aboveground vaults have nothing to do with a high-water table? Really? I’m a lifelong legacy journalist: You can’t just throw out a “fact” like that without attribution. Research. Justification.

Besides, my household ghost, Henri, would never forgive me for not investigating this tidbit of potential historical heresy.

I’ve lived in New Orleans for going on five decades, beginning my tenure here as a curatorial assistant at The Historic New Orleans Collection — and thus one of those tour guides the author seems to disdain. And my understanding always has been that a high water table did indeed have something to do with burying our dearly departed above ground.

Like any good contemporary fact checker, I went to Google. The vote there goes in a landslide to the tour guides: Sites agree on the H2O factor, from New Orleans Online (“because the city is built on a swamp”) to Prairie Ghosts (“the city was always wet”) to Innovateus (“high water table”). Perhaps  Experience New Orleans reports it most engagingly:

Burial plots are shallow in New Orleans because the water table is very high. Dig a few feet down, and the grave becomes soggy, filling with water. The casket will literally float. You just can’t keep a good person down! The early settlers tried placing stones in and on top of coffins to weigh them down and keep them underground. Unfortunately, after a rainstorm, the rising water table would literally pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. To this day, unpredictable flooding still lifts the occasional coffin out of the ground in areas above the water table, generally considered safe from flooding.

Of course, as a seasoned journalist, I know the vagaries of the Internet. And several sites debunk the weighted stones story. So next I went to trusted sources, cultivated over years of reporting. My first go-to was Save Our Cemeteries, certainly the most erudite and informed local resource when it comes to our Cities of the Dead. As with any complex cultural tradition, this one, it turns out, has multiple causes. To wit:

  • Cultural: Aboveground burials were customary in the mother countries of France and Spain, based on a Mediterranean tradition. As New Orleans prospered, under both French and Spanish rule, those customs and influences prevailed.
  • Geographical: Much of the city of New Orleans lies below sea level with a high water table. …. As the city developed and new cemeteries were established, above ground burial became a solution to the flooding threat, as well as the difficulties of digging in the Mississippi mud underlying the city.
  • Psychological: In early years, death was feared and most burials were in mass graves, reserving markers and monuments only for society’s elite. By the 1800s, attitudes had changed. Ancestors were honored. Cemeteries were laid out like parks with trees, plants, statuary, and the like. Individuals and families sought to commemorate the memories of those that had died.

As a final nail in the coffin of this academic search, I turned to fellow journalist John Pope, the city’s preeminent obituary writer and author of the wonderful obit anthology Getting Off At Elysian Fields. He came up with a couple of thoughts.

“First and foremost,” he writes, “I beg to differ with The New York Times on this point. (This is, after all, the newspaper that has gone spectacularly wrong with travel articles about this city.) According to Doug Keister’s Going Out in Style: The Architecture of Eternity, it’s all about water: If you dig just a little bit, you’ll hit water, resulting in a soggy interment. Not a good thing.

“But there’s more. Of course. About the time that early settlers were noticing this unpleasant phenomenon in the St. Peter Street Cemetery, which is on the edge of the French Quarter, Keister said, New Orleans came under Spanish control. Spanish influence extended to burials, including above-ground wall vaults that were popular in Spain. And there you are.”

Pope adds a closing observation about this grave issue: “There are family vaults. How to crowd a family into one vault? After two years — enough time for the bones to decompose — the coffin is emptied and destroyed to make way for the next burial. The bones, BTW, are put into a bag (labeled, I’m sure) and put back into the vault. Needless to say, this is not done when family members are present.”

In his book, Keister also unearths a legal issue pertinent to the research. It seems that a series of nasty epidemics in the early 1830s were blamed on noxious fumes emitted by corpses. So the City Council passed an ordinance requiring new burials to take place on land near Bayou St. John – with one exception: Burials could continue at existing cemeteries only if they were in tombs and vaults above ground.

Which brings politics back into the matter. And that leaves me with one final thought for voters, journalists and trick-or-treaters.

Don’t mess with our cemetery lore.



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