New Tour Connects New Orleans’ 19th-century Mourning Customs, Historic Cemeteries

Monday, September 23, 2013

The following article appeared in the Sunday, September 22 edition of The New Orleans Advocate.

Dark-hued clothing, prayer cards and even a special pastry were among the accessories that marked a death in New Orleans’ 19th-century homes.

If you’re dying to learn more about the city’s 19th century mourning and burial traditions, the Louisiana Landmarks Society and Save Our Cemeteries have devised a new tour for you.

The Friday afternoon tour is being offered weekly now through mid-November and includes a docent-guided tour of both the St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 and the Pitot House Museum (owned by the Louisiana Landmarks Society), located within a few hundred yards of one another.

“We look out of our back windows at the cemetery every day, and it seemed like a lost opportunity that we have never done a program before with Save Our Cemeteries,” said Walter Gallas, the recently installed executive director of Louisiana Landmarks Society. “This is the first time that the Pitot House has displayed objects related to 19th century mourning rituals and the first time we have partnered on a tour with the cemeteries group. It’s a natural fit.”

Participants will congregate at the circa-1795 Pitot House on Bayou St. John, then follow a docent across Esplanade Avenue to St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, which saw its first burial in 1853.

“Cemeteries were traditionally placed outside of city limits,” said Angie Green, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries. “St. Louis No. 1 on Basin Street was at the edge of the city when it was built in the 1790s and St. Louis No. 2 on St. Louis Street was on the edge when it was built in 1823.

By the mid-19th century, the city had grown considerably so St. Louis No. 3 is on Esplanade at the bayou.”

Green noted that although many out-of-towners visit St. Louis No. 3, the cemetery isn’t as well known by locals as Lafayette No. 1, for example.

“This is a chance for locals to get a real introduction to St. Louis No. 3,” she said. “There are plenty of grand mausoleums there that you’d see in our old cemeteries, and there are also tombs for religious and benevolent societies.”

Green said that there are a few special highlights of the cemetery that tour participants will encounter.

“One is where E.J. Bellocq is buried, the photographer who documented Storyville,” she said. “The other is a spot we call ‘Restaurateurs Corner.’ We haven’t confirmed yet that those in the tombs are actually ancestors of the current families, but there are tombs for the Tujague, Galatoire and Prudhomme families there, all in the same area of the cemetery.”

The architecture of the tombs in St. Louis No. 3 reflects classical architecture, according to Green, as well as Gothic and Egyptian.

“One of the things I find really interesting is the material of some of the tombs,” she said. “They are made of cast concrete in a sort of honeycomb pattern, with elaborate designs stamped into the concrete.”

Returning to the Pitot House when the cemetery tour ends, participants will view a host of objects associated with 19th-century mourning customs as they follow a guide through the house.

“We’re really fortunate that one of our former house directors, Myrna Bergeron, has been collecting these items and was willing to loan them to us,” Gallas said. “There are pieces of clothing, prayer cards, and an interesting thing called a coffin plate — a silver-plated card inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates that would be placed on the coffin then presented to the family at the service. Myrna also discovered a recipe that we’ll be sharing.”

The recipe is for “Mourning Pie,” which Gallas described as “a sort of tartlet with a filling of raisins, brown sugar and butter.”

“Myrna is the one who came up with the idea of serving the pie to guests at the tour, and one of our board members will be making them,” he said. “Everyone will get a taste.”

You can reserve a spot on one of the tours by visiting: http://bookeo.com/saveourcemeteries?type=211EEX3WJ140EF7169D4