WALKER — The manner in which families, groups and communities choose to provide a final resting place for the deceased can be influenced by a number of factors including a major one, the geographical areas where these groups had chosen to live and make lives for themselves.
A study on the role that geography plays in funeral customs was presented at the Livingston Literacy and Technology Center on Oct. 29 by Gerald T. McNeill, instructor in geography at Southeastern Louisiana University.
McNeill’s address, "A Study in Necrogeography: North and South Louisiana Cemeteries,” explored the differences in burial customs in the two regions of the Pelican State.
McNeill prefaced his address by explaining that he was reared in New Orleans near one of that city’s famed cemeteries and that from an early age he was fascinated by the various burial customs one can find in different geographical regions. He said that on visits to relatives in Alabama he would have occasions to observe burial customs that were different than the ones he saw in Louisiana.
McNeill said his service on a management board of a Crescent City cemetery only enhanced his interest in studying the differences of burial customs from one area to another.
Burial practices are part of what McNeill defined as cultural geography. He pointed out that physical geography describes where a place is relative to other locations while cultural geography examines how residents of different areas treat different aspects of their everyday lives. He described necrogeography as the cultural study of funeral and burial practices with an emphasis on respect for the dead and the cemeteries where their remains lie.
From the outset, McNeill said burial practices in North and South Louisiana were different because of the geography of the two regions. In South Louisiana, especially in the New Orleans area, above-ground tombs became more of the norm because the water table was exceptionally high and that burials in relatively deep graves would result in flooding and the deterioration of the casket and remains. Ultimately, those tombs grew to be more elaborate as families of means could afford to have large, embellished burial structures built.
In North Louisiana, where the general geography is marked by higher ground and deeper water tables, burial in graves below the surface became more common.
McNeill pointed out that just geography alone does not always define how the dead were laid to rest. “The whole culture of dealing with the remains of the deceased is involved in complex behavior patterns and the specialized behavioral patterns of various groups. While geography can be a determining factor in burial practices, many other aspects of those practices do come into play,” he said.
The past history of a group or a community also plays a role in how that community chooses to treat its dead as well as the geographical factors.
One of the cultural aspects of burial practices involves religion. McNeill said the first residents of what is now the state of Louisiana were Native Americans who had their own way of dealing with the deceased. The French, who were the first permanent European settlers in Louisiana, brought with them burial customs from their native land. This trend continued, he said, as other groups arrived in Louisiana from different nations.
He noted that among the first settlers to come to Louisiana after the French were of German descent. These settlers largely assimilated into the French culture and adopted French as a language and even changed their names to reflect the people among whom they had settled. Subsequent arrivals in early Louisiana such as the Spanish, the African slaves, the “new” French who came from Acadia in the Canadian maritime provinces, and later immigrants from the Caribbean Sea area all brought subtle changes in the manner in which they laid their dead to rest.
A major geographical factor that helped determine where cemeteries were located in Louisiana was the division of land. In South Louisiana, beginning with the French, the land was divided among owners based on giving access to a river or bayou. Thus, the land grants in South Louisiana were long “slices” of land with a waterfront on a navigable stream. The waterways were the highways of their day. Even the manner in which land was measured was different. The French used the arpent system to measure land. In North Louisiana, where the streams were not nearly as numerous, the immigrants adopted what was known as the metes and bounds manner of sizing up the land claimed by settlers who largely came from established states such as Virginia and the Carolinas.
“Under the metes and bounds system, boundaries were based on natural geographical features such as a large tree, a big stump, a ridge or a creek. Thus, early settlers were spread out in a different manner than the way their counterparts in the southern part of the state did,” he explained.
The result was that in the southern part of the state cemeteries were more centralized because of the closer connections of the residents while in the north, smaller, dispersed cemeteries became more of the norm.
A second factor in the location of cemeteries involved religion. McNeill said South Louisiana's population was predominately Catholics while North Louisiana was predominately Protestant. The Catholics primarily built cemeteries connected to the churches and while this was also somewhat common in North Louisiana, smaller, family and group plots were more frequently found.
McNeill said that in North Louisiana cemeteries tended to be built on high ground and what he termed “scraped ground.” He defined “scrapped ground” as tracts where all the trees and brush was removed allowing for an orderly, easier to maintain cemetery. Burial plots in North Louisiana were sometimes defined by “coping” or cement curbing built around a grave. From time to time, sand or soil was placed inside the coping to create a mound of earth that served as a reminder of where a body was buried.
People moving to Louisiana starting primarily in the 1700s tended to bring their burial customs with them, McNeill said. For example, In North Louisiana burial customs from what he called the Upland South, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia, brought the custom of burying the dead on an east-west orientation. “I guess they believed that when their loved ones would rise on the Judgment Day they would be facing the rising sun in the east,” he said. Also, cemeteries in North Louisiana sometimes featured preferred species of vegetation to add a sense of peace on the borders of a cemetery. He said that evergreens, especially cedar trees, were the preferred greenery planted near a cemetery. In the cemeteries in South Louisiana, where above-ground tombs were more the norm, the greenery did not play a role.
Some cemeteries in the Upland South also continued an English custom of building what he called “Lych-Gate Structures.” These were covered structures that were part of a cemetery. Some of these structures were elaborate and quite beautiful, he said.
McNeill said that the Hungarians who settled in the Albany and Springfield areas starting in the late 1800s have maintained an interesting custom. On All Saints’ Day many in the community gather at the cemetery to place lighted candles on the tombs. The ritual is accompanied by prayers and a solemn observance of respect for the final resting place of those who had passed before. He said that he leads a group of students and visitors to the Hungarian cemeteries every year for participation in those rites. Among the other local cemeteries McNeill discussed was the cemetery in Independence where almost all the tombs are above ground, a reflection of the Italian settlers who came to the area at about the same time as the Hungarians.
McNeill said that increasingly families are choosing to cremate the remains of their loved ones and that this will ultimately have an effect on cemeteries and the rituals associated with honoring the dead. He said that this trend is just one more in the long history of how societies have chosen to honor those who have passed on from the living to the dead.
The accompanying photo is Gerald T. McNeill