As for the vast historic cemeteries filled with celebrity resting places, Paris has Père Lachaise, Hollywood has Forest Lawn, and New Orleans has Metairie Cemetery.
Spread over 127 acres that once housed a racetrack, Metairie Cemetery is home to the graves of nine governors, 12 New Orleans mayors and six state Supreme Court justices, as well as, among others, Tom Benson, the former owner of the Saints; Al Copeland, the fried chicken tycoon; PBS Pinchback, Louisiana’s only black governor; Louis Prima, the mad musician; Carlos Marcello, the boss of snowshoes; and Josie Arlington, Storyville’s most famous lady. The cemetery dates from 1872 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The inhabitants of the cemetery, estimated at around 120,000, rest in tombs in styles ranging from sober to grandiose. While many, especially in the more recent sections, are simple pieces that resemble small, solidly built stone structures, there is no shortage of replicas of Greek temples, as well as a massive pyramid and sarcophagus of white marble that loom above Metairie Road which was modeled on that of a Florentine basilica.
Near the latter tomb are two other distinctive sites: an obelisk with four female figures at its base and a mound – technically known as a burial mound – containing the remains of soldiers from the Louisiana Division of the Tennessee Army, including including General PGT Beauregard, the New Orleanese who led the attack on Fort Sumter which started the Civil War.
“I tell people that there is more history in these 127 acres than anywhere else in the New Orleans area,” said Gerard L. “Jerry” Schoen III, a funeral director who is also Director of Community Outreach for Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home.
Schoen, 65, has worked there for 42 years. An avid cemetery guide, he can tell you where people are buried and, in one case, where someone is not. This individual is Arlington, whose first resting place is a statue of a young woman wearing a crown with one hand on a bronze door. Contrary to urban myth, the woman does not represent Arlington but is based on a statue of a woman in a German cemetery, according to the cemetery story by author Henri A. Gandolfo.
Arlington died in 1914. Due to her notoriety and the fact that the red granite grave reflected a flashing light from a nearby toll gate along New Basin Shell Road, her grave became a focal point. tourist until the light is removed, Gandolfo wrote.
Arlington’s body has also been moved, as financial difficulties forced his family to sell the grave and move his body to a safe, the location of which is an official secret Schoen does not reveal. Its former resting place, however, still attracts visitors.
As well as being a de facto guide and historian, Schoen is the arbiter of what is allowed and what is strictly forbidden in the cemetery – he has had to say no to voodoo ceremonies, Gothic weddings and card readings. of tarot. No pet burials are allowed, but several sites feature sculptures of pets, including the devoted dog of Francis Masich, who, Gandolfo wrote, followed Masich’s coffin to the grave. and refused to leave.
In a burst of artistic license, the sculptor included a tear falling from the dog’s left eye. (Although Metairie Cemetery does not allow animal burials, the complex containing the cemetery includes Heaven’s Pets, where animals can be cremated and their ashes can be stored.)
Metairie Cemetery, owned by Service Corporation International, was established in 1872. At that time, embalming was now part of preparing a body for burial. Nonetheless, Schoen said, some people feared they would be buried alive, although that would be impossible because embalming removes blood and other fluids.
To appease those who feared the distant possibility of waking up in a coffin, Schoen said, some people have asked to be buried holding a rope connected to a bell the undead could pull to alert a guard. (Schoen suggested that this could be an origin of the term “dead ringing.”)
One of those people was Elizabeth Hale Bernau, who died in 1891. Her grave is topped by a dome with a bell attached to a rope that was extended through a hole in the top of her mahogany coffin and put in its main, just in case she can wake up, Schoen said.
The rope, which frayed, was pulled back, Gandolfo wrote, but for years Bernau’s niece used to ring the bell in memory of her aunt.
One of the most imposing graves in the cemetery is that of William G. Helis Sr., who came to the United States as an impoverished Greek immigrant and made his fortune in the oil trade. But he never forgot his native land.
The granite tomb of Helis, inspired by the temple of Nike at the top of the Acropolis in Athens, not only bears his name in Greek on the back of the tomb, but also fulfills his wish that he be buried on Greek soil. To do this, Schoen said, Helis had land imported from Tropaia, his hometown, and spread it on the land before his mausoleum was built. Hélis died in 1950.
In Gandolfo’s book, “Metairie Cemetery: An Historical Memoir,” he wrote that the 1950s marked the beginning of a trend towards less distinctive graves, a victim of rising costs.
“People don’t build ornate structures anymore because they are so expensive,” said Gil Bonnafons, director of commemorative construction at the cemetery. “It’s a labor intensive proposition. Usually, they’ll go with a stock design, or, if it’s a walk-in (tomb), they’ll go with a classic design, but they won’t dwell on its ornamentation. They will leave it out because it is getting terribly expensive.
A marble mausoleum, with three crypts on either side of the entrance, can cost around $ 800,000, Bonnafons said, but something larger can cost as much as $ 5 million.
Regardless of the cost, Schoen said the cemetery takes care of the upkeep when the owners of graves and mausoleums pay for lifelong care, which is a percentage of the cost of each plot.
Even though standardization has become an attractive option, Bonnafons said some customers are asking for amenities such as a back patio or some type of cross or statue.
“We can always welcome them,” said Bonnafons, who has worked at the cemetery for more than 40 years.
But there are times when he has to draw the line. “Someone asked me not to put a marble crypt facade on their walk-in mausoleum because they wanted to go out at night and not have a marble slab in their way,” Bonnafons said, calling it “probably the most outrageous thing I have” I was asked to do with all the graves I have built.
He refused it. “I said, ‘We can’t do this,’” Bonnafons said. “You’ll have to find a way out on your own. “
This story was reported by The Preservation Resource Center, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve the historic architecture, neighborhoods, and cultural identity of New Orleans. For more information visit PRCNO.org.
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