For writer and historian Peter Dedek, a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 may offer the most poignant commentary on the state of New Orleans' famous historic cemeteries.
“There is a cupola on top of the tomb, with the word ‘silence’ written in four languages,” said Dedek, author of the new work, "The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History."
“The inscription is both somber and ironic: somber because of the reference to the ‘silence of the grave,’ and ironic because of the traffic noises coming from the elevated expressway on North Claiborne.”
A native of Kingston, New York, Dedek discovered on his first visit to a New Orleans cemetery just how different they are from a typical New England burial ground.
“Where I was from, there were plenty of cemeteries, but most of the historic ones are associated with churches and consist of tombstones in the church yard,” he said. “I had to satisfy my curiosity about why the New Orleans version was so different."
When he realized that there wasn’t a single book that answered all the questions he had, Dedek set out to write his own. The Texas State University professor is also the author of a cultural profile of Route 66 and a textbook for teaching historic preservation.
Dedek shares the results of his research Oct. 7 when the Garden District Book Shop and Save Our Cemeteries host a book signing for “The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History,” followed by a walking tour of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 across the street from the bookstore (2727 Prytania St.).
Starting in 2014, Dedek took a semester off from his post at Texas State to live in New Orleans and use resources found at the Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans Public Library, University of New Orleans and Tulane University. He documented the contributions to the city's cemeteries by prominent architects, stone cutters, sculptors and tomb builders, including J.N.B. de Pouilly, Florville Foy, Newton Richards, Paul Hippolyte Monsseaux, Eugene and David Warburg, James Hagan, Charles Orleans, Albert Weiblen and Thomas Sully.
He was fascinated by “Palaces of the Dead,” a term for the society and benevolent association tombs that began to appear in the mid-19th century. But he also learned about "slums of the dead," coming face-to-face with the fragility of the cemeteries and difficulties surrounding upkeep of the tombs.
Helpfully for fans of the cemeteries, the book includes a primer on common architectural types and styles of tombs. There's also a thumbnail sketch of a dozen or so of the city’s better-known burial grounds.
“I found that each was different, not just physically, but each had a slightly different personality to it,” Dedek said. “I think my favorite in that regard is St. Louis No. 2 on North Claiborne Avenue. It has a raw feel that none of the others have.”
A few more photos and the addition of maps would make the book more visually tantalizing, especially for non-New Orleanians who haven’t grown up with the city’s aboveground burial traditions. All the same, the book serves well its intended purpose.
“The cemeteries are a perfect lens for focusing on the history of the city and the evolution of its culture,” Dedek said.
Book Signing and Cemetery Tour
WHEN: Oct. 7, 1 p.m.
WHERE: Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St.