Where I’m walking: Cypress Grove Cemetery, established in 1840 by the Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association. It’s located among a cluster of cemeteries where Canal Street dead-ends at City Park Avenue, near the Pontchartrain Expressway. You’ll recognize Cypress Grove instantly by its gleaming white stuccoed buildings and dramatic pylons in the Egyptian Revival style. Oh, plus the metalwork arch at the top of the entrance that spells out the name.
Why I’m here: While it is true I adore visiting cemeteries at any time of day or year, this week’s visit is especially timely because of All Saints’ Day tomorrow. Never mind that today is Halloween: I have never subscribed to the notion that cemeteries are spooky places. I find them peaceful and maybe a little elegiac, but soothing all the same.
I choose Cypress Grove because of its history as the first cemetery built to honor New Orleans’ volunteer firemen and their families. Among notable occupants are New Orleans Mayors John T. Monroe (1860-1862 and 1866-1867), John R. Conway (1868-1870), Charles L. Leeds (1874-1876), and William J. Behan (1882-1884). Maunsel White, a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans and developer of the eponymous pepper sauce, occupies a handsome Greek Revival tomb designed by architect Jacques N. B. de Pouilly, responsible for the late 1840s renovation of St. Louis Cathedral. (Source: greenwoodnola.com)
Scene on the street: Streets in the cemetery are named for plants and trees, with Live Oak being the road that runs down the center, from Canal Street at the north to Banks Street on the south. Most of the communal mausoleums tend to cluster toward the Canal Street end of the long, narrow cemetery. Cross streets have names such as Rose, Myrtle and Jessamine. I discover two large oaks on the site, one of them trailing Spanish moss over the tops of the tombs.
I choose a row of tombs on the west side of Live Oak, not far from the Canal Street entrance. They aren’t what I usually see in our local cemeteries, where the pattern is frequently a line of near identical mausoleums with minor variations, like a row of shotgun houses by the same builder. Here, not one of the tombs bears a resemblance to the next.
Starting at the south end of the row and walking north, I see the first tomb is the tallest and most imposing. Made of durable granite, it features a trio of pilasters with two sets of tall gates between them, offering access to four vaults on each side. Laurel wreaths are carved into the stone at the top of each pilaster and the tomb is topped with symmetrical volutes on either side of a cross. I see the name “Brady” inscribed over the gates on the left and “Stone” over those on the right.
I find the cast iron fence that demarcates the plot even more distinctively than the crypt itself. I see these all over Cypress Grove — ornate railings (sometimes with tall gates) surrounding many of the tombs. I have seen them elsewhere, but Cypress Grove seems to have a greater number of intact fences than any other cemetery I have visited.
The next tomb or tombs have no precedence in my cemetery walking experience. There are two mausoleums sitting atop what looks like a ceremonial altar, reached by a series of full-width steps. The entire composition appears to be composed of white marble (which accounts for why the name tablets are weathered and now nearly illegible). I can, however, make out a name atop each: “Johnson” on the left one and “Walker” on the right.
The next specimen represents a hybrid of a traditional, semi-pyramid tomb and an obelisk, common in many northern cemeteries but not in New Orleans. Made of granite, the tomb of the “Family of Henry Hohn” features an inscription tablet of marble (again, because marble is softer than granite, it erodes and so the inscription is hard to read). I notice that the obelisk that extends from the top of the tomb seems to be truncated. It’s always possible that the tip could have broken off in a storm, but I bet the truncation is intentional: funerary symbolism for a life cut short.
Given the glory of the neighboring tombs, the last one on the row is modest indeed. A simple granite tomb with shoebox proportions sits atop a low platform. No columns or volutes, no pilasters or obelisks. There is only a marble inscription tablet with words I can’t make out. Because it’s a rainy day, I can’t help but think about the phrase “lost in the mists of time.”
Word on the street
As I make my way up and down, trying to shield my camera from raindrops, I spot a young couple in the distance, clinging to each other under an umbrella. They walk away from where I stand, so I am pleased to see the woman in blue rain gear walk toward me. She is Jenny Noodhuis from Canberra, Australia.
“I quite like the rain,” she tells me and then carefully spells her last name, which is Dutch. “I’ve been traveling around the United States for six weeks and saved the best for last.”
I ask her if she routinely explores cemeteries on her travels, or at home, for that matter.
“Why would I?” she asks. “They are nothing like what you have here, are they? I’ve never seen anything like this before.”