“Funerary and burial rites and traditions are a little different here, which allows many, many generations of a family to be entombed together. For a start, the tombs are all built above the ground, in order for them to stay buried; before this, floods frequently dislodged the dead and saw their caskets float on down the street. One year and one day after death, it is customary to retrieve the remains if the body – teeth and bones – place them in a bag, and toss that bag back into a deep pit below the family tomb. With temperatures scorching in summer, the bones are generally turned to dust within another year, allowing the bags of bones to pile up almost indefinitely. “Wouldn’t touch that with a 10 foot pole” – that’s what’s used to retrieve the remains, or so we overheard from a tour guide in one of the cemeteries we visited.”
“There were a lot of rice fields, and we started to notice a lot of burial sites in the rice fields. Cuong told us that tradition allows for bodies to be buried in rice fields, on anyone’s land, so long as permission has been asked & granted. They are then buried under a modest mound of dirt, only to be dug up 3 years later. The bones are collected & cleaned in rice wine, then placed in a beautiful burial urn for a second and final burial. If the family has had bad luck over the past 3 years, it is believed the relative is unhappy with their final resting place, allowing the family to chose a new location for the second burial.”
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Corner Washington Ave & Prytania St, New Orleans
After yesterday’s New Orleans read, I thought I’d stick with this favourite city of mine for another day, with another cemetery photo tour…
In stark comparison to the clean lines of the mostly shiny white marble of the St Louis Cemetery No. 3 and a little closer to the beautifully dilapidated St Louis Cemetery No. 1, Lafayette No. 1 was surrounded by the most beautiful trees (as one might expect for a cemetery located in the middle of the Garden District), most of which had shed their leaves in the winter month we visited onto the tombs below, which gave me the feeling that the elements of nature were somehow protecting their residents…
This cemetery is not only the oldest of the seven city-operated cemeteries in the city, but it’s also a non-denominational and non-segregated resting place for not only natives, but also immigrants from 25-odd other countries – over 7, 000 souls in total entombed in the cemetery.
St Louis Cemetery No. 1
425 Basin St. New Orleans
I wrapped my oversized cardigan around me a little tighter as my feet crunched over the leaves that peppered the footpath, and the early morning wind blew as if it were trying to pass right through me. I’d woken up that morning in New Orleans, the city I’d been inexplicably drawn to, and a long way from home back in Australia.
It was with some trepidation that I passed through the entrance of the St Louis Cemetery No. 1. It wasn’t the whole being in a cemetery thing that had me unnerved; I’m oddly at ease among the graves and stories of the past. What I wasn’t at ease with at that time was myself. I arrived in New Orleans with this feeling I couldn’t shake, like I didn’t fit in anywhere, like I didn’t belong. On that thought, the wind blew through me once more, as if urging me on through the front gate, as if pushing me toward answers.
I moved silently through the decaying tombs, many dating back to the 1700s. Generations were contained within single crumbling structures; how many were truly remembered? What were their stories? The tombs would have been beautiful originally, but the deterioration they faced over the centuries only made them even more striking. Intricate wrought iron crosses and arrows decorated gates encircling tombs, while large stone and marble placards listing the names of the souls resting within lay on the floor beside many of tombs, gently pieced back together, having fallen from the places they’d originally occupied.
Looking out over the praying angels perched on top of mausoleums, eyes turned to the heavens, I could see Treme Street and the housing projects beyond. Arriving just as the gates were unlocked for the day proved to be the perfect time to visit, with no one else around. I was a long way from the mayhem and commercialism of the tourist hub that is Bourbon Street; I was, proverbially, definitely not in Kansas anymore.
I guess travel is the ultimate opportunity to reflect and recharge; we all know the cliché of people “finding themselves” while travelling. New Orleans was so different to anywhere else I’d been. The people there seemed to live authentically, fearlessly. Free. As someone who’s spent the best part of her life held back by fear, I was hypnotised by that thought, ready to start my own new chapter. And, as if the spirits had me in their hands, the last thing I saw before I left the cemetery was an old book, the pages browned and torn, sitting on top of a tomb; as I walked past, the wind blew the open pages shut.
St Louis Cemetery #3
3421 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans
This was the third of the cemeteries I visited in New Orleans, and it was by far the most modern looking and well tended, despite being established in 1854. It’s in the Bayou St John area, which is gorgeous to walk through on a sunny day, and the cemetery itself is quite a bit bigger than numbers 1 and 2.
It’s laid out in three main “aisles” of tombs, which makes it very easy to navigate your way around. There are individual and family tombs, as at other cemeteries, but also large tombs containing the remains of priests and nuns, which I didn’t notice anywhere else.
The tombs here seemed, for the most part, to be well cared for and maintained, gleaming white marble with fresh inscriptions; some were also in various states of disrepair, which only made them even more beautiful next to the uniformed white ones.
I’ve been a bit flat lately. I’ve been feeling like crap, physically ill, on and off, for months now, and really can’t work out why. Actually, it may be years, not months, if I’m being honest. There’s a lot going on, both mentally and physically, and on the physical side I’m being tested for gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance, iron, vitamin D, thyroid, etc stuff. Mentally & emotionally is a bit more complicated. I think one of the contributing factors is missing my grandmother.
It still feels weird to talk about her in the past tense, that she doesn’t “exist” anymore. I don’t like writing that she “was” a big part of my life; she still is. She helped raise me as a child. She taught me to knit and hand stitch in her sewing room. She taught me to pick out good produce at the market, and then to cook it like a pro. She made outfit after outfit for me, including my deb (debutant ball) dress. And the veil I wore on my wedding day. She gave me crap for my ripped jeans, asking if they needed mending, and telling me that wearing them wasn’t cool. She always started phone conversations by asking if I’d eaten (no, it’s not some Italian joke, she legit asked every time), and how Marley, my dog, was going. After she’d told me off for not answering my phone earlier in the day (Sorry Nonna, I’ve been at work. “Why?!” was her response, most of the time – I could never tell if she was serious or just taking the piss).
Anyway, I live with a teacher, and as such I now observe the comings and goings of the school terms. I guess my dis-ease came to a boiling point this week, because when husband told me he was totally ready for school holidays, the most random thing happened. A memory filled my head and took over for a second, like one of those crazy movie flashbacks… I was a primary school aged kid again, at Nonna’s house – I’d usually stay at her house a few nights every school holidays, so we could just hang out together and do stuff that mum wouldn’t let me do. I was sitting at the bench in the kitchen, on the wooden stool you can see in the picture below, where we had breakfast together, watching her cook French toast for us. And I felt my soul crack a little. It’s cracking again right now, as I type this.
Nonna would work SO intently at her little stove top, making sure our breakfast was just right. Everything had to be perfect for her grand children, especially the food. Our favourite breakfast was French toast, made with thick, fresh Italian bread, cooked in an absolutely ludicrous amount of butter, with more than a sprinkle of salt. It was always perfectly crispy and golden without ever burning. She was a master, really.
Anyway, I’ve been told to load up on gluten before being tested, so screw it – last weekend it was French toast for breakfast! Yes, it’s indulgent, and no, it’s not going to benefit you to eat this regularly. But sometimes when your soul is crying out for a hug, comfort food is where it’s at. Here’s my best attempt to re-create Nonna’s French toast.
It was pretty simple – a few eggs and milk whisked together, dip the bread in (I went a la Nonna and used a loaf of Italian bread, bought from the Preston market, sliced myself with the crusts removed – stop judging me) and fry up on a non-stick pan containing a small ocean of butter. And yes, I added some fruit to try to justify all of the butter and carbs. I also went on a really freakin long 15km walk after I ate this!!! It also cheered me up a bit, and goodness knows I needed it. If you need a pick me up too this weekend, whip yourself up a plate of this buttery deliciousness this weekend – trust Nonna Gemma, it’ll make you happy!