- The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History by Peter B. Dedek
Anthropologists and historians have long recognized that the form and function of cemeteries reveal cultural values and practices. Historian and preservationist Peter Dedek's The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History is an engaging contribution that sheds light on these topics. He argues that cemeteries are important "because of their educational value; their distinctive architecture, art, and landscapes; their role as active burial grounds and memorials to those interred there; and their unique aesthetics" (179). Many graveyard scholars will be familiar with some of the unusual attributes of New Orleans cemeteries (e.g., a focus on aboveground burials), but few will realize the varied contributions from different ethnic and religious groups that resulted in the mortuary landscapes that we see today in the Big Easy. In the course of seven chapters and two helpful appendices, Dedek reviews the historiography of death and dying in the city (including the impact of several epidemics); the influence of ethnicity, religion, and race on the design of tombs; the contributions of benevolent societies; and the importance of cemetery preservation.
The first chapter, "From Mud and Craw-fish to Cities of the Dead," traces the evolution of New Orleans burial practices for a century after the city's founding in the early eighteenth century. Dedek reviews the morphological changes from the more traditional underground graves to the aboveground tombs that enabled residents to build larger and more grandiose monuments. This chapter also introduces the diverse ethnic groups that founded, built, and inhabited early New Orleans, from the original Native inhabitants to the French settlers and from the enslaved West Africans to the Spanish colonists. Each group applied different religious beliefs and cultural practices to their burial practices. This rich blend of cultures created deathscapes that serve as outdoor museums, illustrating changing attitudes toward society and death.
The next two chapters explore the style and creation of monuments. Chapter 2, "Temples of Lilliput: The Mid-Nineteenth Century," focuses on the relationship between the deceased's status in life and the choices that their surviving family members made in selecting the monument for their final resting place, while chapter 3, "The Architecture and Art of Death: The Builders and Decorators," surveys the cultural backgrounds of the artisans and stone cutters who built the tombs and memorials within these cemeteries. In these chapters we see the intersection of French, Caribbean, Spanish, African, and American traditions in the mortuary preferences of New Orleans' residents and the influence of the rich cultural backgrounds of New Orleans stonecutters, the majority of whom were either immigrants or had at least one parent born in another country, while many of the rest were multigenerational free people of color whose ancestors were forcibly relocated from West Africa to the Spanish colony. Dedek describes a wide range of burial styles, from elaborate tombs to unmarked burials within potter's fields, and a patterning among monument styles that reflects the racial caste system that was specific to New Orleans, a less rigid concept of race than in many contemporary American cities. As with all American cemeteries, technological [End Page 123] developments also had an impact on these styles, such as the application of cast iron techniques which resulted in "Neo-Grec" mortuary architecture. One of the early innovators in tomb design within these cemeteries was J. N. B. de Pouilly (1804–1875), a Parisian immigrant who arrived just three decades after America acquired this critical port city as part of its Louisiana Purchase. Together with his colleagues, de Pouilly used revival styles to transform these grave sites from "cities of brick and stucco to ones of marble and cast iron" (50). Dedek documents these changes using the rich archival record, including architectural drawings from de Pouilly's sketchbook, historic maps, descriptions in contemporary newspapers, and firsthand accounts of nineteenth-century cemetery visitors. It was in the first half of the nineteenth century that New Orleans' cemeteries...