As a forensic scientist at LSU, Mary Manhein spent her 30-year career honoring the dead. As head of LSU’s FACES Lab, she helped identify victims of murder and disaster so their families could have closure.
She helped identify the remains of astronauts who perished in the crash of the Columbia space shuttle, corpses left after Hurricane Katrina, the bodies of men and women killed by criminals but anonymous until Manhein could use her detective skills to put a name to a skull.
Manhein retired in 2015, but even today, she continues to work with the dead. For the past five years, she and fellow researcher Jessica H. Schexnayder have been chronicling endangered cemeteries across south Louisiana.
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“We visited 138 cemeteries over that five-year period and documented their perimeters, many of their monuments, visited with multiple cemetery caretakers, and took a slew of photographs,” Manhein told me.
The result is a lovely coffee-table book, published by University Press of Mississippi, called “Fragile Grounds: Louisiana’s Endangered Cemeteries.”
Manhein and Schexnayder will discuss their work during a panel discussion at the Louisiana Book Festival on Oct. 28. The program takes place from 1 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. at the Louisiana State Museum, 660 N. Fourth St. in Baton Rouge.
Peter B. Dedek, author of “The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History,” will be on the panel, too. After the discussion, signed copies of both books will be available for sale.
Here in Halloween season, cemeteries loom in the popular imagination as dark and scary places, a gathering of graves to hurry past or avoid altogether. But both “Fragile Grounds” and “The Cemeteries of New Orleans” argue that burial grounds, as hallowed places of rest for the departed, intimately express what a community thinks about life.
Manhein and Shexnayder begin their book with a quote from Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac”: “Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have.”
The quote is telling, since it invites readers to wonder what Louisiana’s cemeteries say about the kind of people we are. Perhaps the simple answer is that many of our cemeteries are endangered because Louisiana — or at least a great deal of it — is endangered, too.
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“Rapid advancement of coastal erosion combined with storm surges, rising sea levels, and compaction and sinking of the land have led to an unstable landscape,” Manhein and Shexnayder tell readers. “That instability is pushing Louisiana’s residents inland, forcing them to leave evidence of their histories, such as their cemeteries, behind.”
Because in many cases the cemeteries themselves probably won’t be saved, Manhein and Schexnayder felt compelled to document them before it’s too late.
Even the cemeteries in “Fragile Grounds” not directly threatened by nature face another challenge: the neglect of new generations not much interested in their local graveyards.
These books from Manhein, Shexnayder and Dedek are a reminder of what we stand to lose.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter @Danny_Heitman.