When early Creole families entered mourning after the death of a loved one, they changed their behavior, their dress and even their homes.
Whereas before, mirrors may have glittered over mantels, for example, they became shrouded in black fabric and a black wreath was hung on the front door.
The idea was to put vanity aside, said Mamie Gasperecz, of the Hermann Grima Historic House, and focus on the intense feelings of losing a loved one.
“Sacred to the Memory,” the mourning exhibit presented annually in October at the Hermann Grima house museum, takes on a new dimension this year due to a new partnership between the Hermann Grima house and Save Our Cemeteries. Now through Nov. 17, it is possible to tour St. Louis No. 1 cemetery guided by an SOC docent to learn about burial rituals before continuing to the Hermann Grima house for a tour focusing on mourning traditions.
“We had talked with Save Our Cemeteries about doing a dual tour for some time, but it finally came together after an SOC volunteer alerted us a year ago that the Grima family tomb in St. Louis No. 1 had been vandalized,” Gasperecz said. “The iron gate had been removed and was leaning against the back of the tomb, and one of the urns had been broken off its pedestal.”
It was a dark day for both organizations, but it provided the impetus for the two to take steps to realize their longtime plan to partner on a mourning-themed cemetery and house tour. (The Grima family tomb has since been restored.)
“We want the cemetery and house tours to complement one another and not duplicate, so we brought all of the SOC guides here to see the house and take the tour, then our docents visited the cemetery to learn from the SOC guides,” Gasperecz said.
Tour groups meet at the Basin Street Station and are led by an SOC guide to nearby St. Louis No. 1 cemetery, the oldest New Orleans cemetery still standing.
“Guides explain burial customs and all the various tomb types,” said Lora Williams of SOC. “You could be buried in a wall vault or, if your family had means, you might have a family tomb like the Grimas did. Another option was a society tomb — you paid to join the society and it ensured you had a place to be buried and saved you the expense of building a family tomb of your own.”
Because the cemetery was established in the late 1700s, Williams said a number of important historical figures are buried there.
“The best known is Marie Laveau, but we also have the Grima family, Homer Plessy and Bernard Marigny,” Williams said. “The guides talk a little about the architectural styles of the tombs and also jazz history, as we have the Barbarin family tomb that is now available for burying New Orleans musicians.”
After about an hour in the cemetery, the SOC guide leads the group to the Hermann Grima house, dressed in full mourning attire.
“All of the black fabric used to cover mirrors and portraits had a dull finish — nothing shiny — out of respect for the dead. It wasn’t meant to be spooky but to focus emotions inward,” Gasperecz said. “Family members would wear black for an extended period of time, wives much longer than husbands, before changing to black arm bands and then lavender clothes.”
Mourning rituals and etiquette were highly regimented, due largely to the nature of the New Orleans culture in the early to mid-19th century.
“You need to think of it in the context of this being a very religious, very Catholic city back then,” Gasperecz said. “Homes were outfitted for the occasion — we even have a full set of lavender china in the house.”
Williams said that the tour of the cemetery and the house provides a well-rounded perspective on the differences between how death, burial and mourning were handled then as opposed to now.
“Think about it. There were no funeral homes back then — everyone was waked in their homes. And there were no motorcades on the Interstate — you were buried in the cemetery in your neighborhood,” she said.