There are many things that are weird, strange or just plain ol’ different about Louisiana, but one thing that makes New Orleans stand out more than anything else are our cemeteries. Because of the water table for the city, in most areas, burial is not possible in the ground as one expects of a typical burial. Digging the requisite 6 feet into the Earth results in water seeping into the hole. When the city was first being settled, this resulted in many dead literally rising in their graves whenever there was a flood. After a time, crypts were built above the ground – massive single (and occasionally multi-) family structures were built to accommodate the dearly departed. As the cemeteries grew with these small structures, which often resemble houses, the cemeteries began to resemble a small city. So if you visit New Orleans and hear of our cities of the dead, don’t be too concerned; we’re only speaking of our cemeteries.
There is a street in New Orleans which runs from the river to the lake called Canal Street. At one time, Canal Street didn’t reach the river, instead it reached the edge of the city. Since cemeteries were once built on the edges of cities for sanitation purposes, Canal Street ended at a collection of cemeteries. Today, no less than seven cemeteries are within walking distance of the end of Canal Street and the street car line: Greenwood Cemetery, Holt Cemetery, the Masonic Cemetery, Charity Hospital Cemetery, the Jewish Cemetery, Firemen’s Cemetery and the largest cemetery in the city: Metairie Cemetery.
I recently visited Metairie Cemetery – my favourite of all of our cemeteries – to take photos and use it as a basis for my story telling.
In 1838, the land that the cemetery occupies was once Metairie Race Track and when the race track closed, the land was convereted into the cemetery which is still there today. When Metairie Cemetery opened in 1872, the private governing body which owned the property laid out the first graves in the typical oval configuration of the horse race track that once occupied the land.
There are many unique resting places of locally famous people and some not-so-famous. Each grave is a work of art, clearly reflecting the values of those individuals or family members.
The monument that stands out most is the tallest structure in the cemetery and dominates what might have once been the main entrance. It is a grave and monument for the wife of Daniel Moriarty. Born in Northern Ireland, Daniel came to New Orleans as a youth and not long after met Mary Farrell. They were both hardworking and heavily invested in real estate. Mary was 22 years Daniel’s senior and she passed away long before he would, so he set out to build a monument to her honor in Metairie Cemetery. Crafted of Vermont granite, it stands 60 feet high on a circular plot 85 feet in diameter. The four statues gracing the monument are the the three virtues – Faith, Hope and Charity. For many years the long-standing tale was that Mrs. Moriarty was the fourth statue, but it is, in fact, Memory.