Thursday, September 24, 2009

Meet Tess Conrad, "The New Orleans Graveyard Rabbit"

The forty seventh in a series
featuring a member of
The Graveyard Rabbit Association


The New Orleans Graveyard Rabbit

Hello everyone, and thank you for the opportunity to introduce myself: I'm Tess Conrad, New Orleans Graveyard Rabbit. I'm originally from New York, and fell in love with NOLA on my first visit in 1994, finally moving down with my fiancee and daughter in 2002. The time has flown by and I've just sent my kiddo off to her first semester at college, so I've found lots of time to be re-allocated to my other loves- writing, photography, our menagerie (2 parrots, 3 dogs and various wandering cats) & garden- and of course, the Graveyard Rabbits blog! I work for the Preservation Resource Center here in New Orleans, helping to save our amazing architectural history and also have recently begun volunteering for RAOGK and, but unlike many Rabbits, my interest has not been so much genealogical as cultural. Like the homes I deal with in my day job, the tombs have their own architectural styles with fantastical detail work and are worthy of their title of "cities of the dead."
St. Louis No. 3 - City of the Dead
From the very beginning I loved them- how could I not? More than any other place in the US, death continues to be a comfortable part of life here, filled with unique rituals and a genuine joy that I've never seen anywhere else. There is an acceptance here of the yin and yang of life- sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down, but you're only here once, so you might as well make the most of it while you can.
Given that philosophy, there's always a reason to have a party in New Orleans, and funerals are no different. To the usual wake and mass we add jazz and second lines- parades to and from the grave site to see your loved ones off with a smile and a good hip-shaking, soul-affirming boogie. From the most affluent citizen to the very poorest, everyone has a different unique tradition, and death truly is a family affair.
For instance it definitely pays to make nice with your annoying Uncle Bill before he dies, because you'll likely be spending eternity with him in a very real way, given that most burials here are in family tombs. Most have just 2 vaults inside, but they're used dozens of times with the remains of the previous occupants moved down into the base to mingle with those of their ancestors.
Crumbling Cuban Society Tombs and wall vaults
For those too poor to afford their own tombs, there are several options, from Society Tombs (death guilds, basically, with a very specific sort of 'clubhouse') or wall vaults (essentially apartments for the dead where you're welcome to stay as long as you like- assuming your family's kept the rent paid up- another reason to make nice with them before you die), or as a last resort there's the New Orleans version of Potter's Field, and even there people carve out and personalize a niche for themselves and their families, returning to that same spot for generations to bury their dead. Plus, of course, there are all the strange things only found here. Voodoo Queens. Pirates. Jazz greats, heroes and revolutionaries, to say nothing of all the tall tales and hauntings courtesy of romantic fancies by the likes of Anne Rice. We have a bumper sticker here: We put the FUN in funeral. My goal to do the same for my Graveyard Rabbit blog, and I hope you stop by and dance along with us!


Thomas MacEntee said...

Thanks for the tour Tess! I enjoyed learning more about graves in New Orleans!

Tess Conrad said...

Thanks Thomas!

I'm really looking forward to going through all (wow!) of your blogs- especially the rural NY guide. I lived for several years up in the middle of nowhere, about an hour north of Albany, and it can be a strange and beautiful place.

Mopsie Marilisa said...

I completely enjoyed that well written and informative post!

How wonderful N.O. is to have you.

And I LOVED, "We put the FUN in funeral."

That still seems weird to me how they move the bones and put the next 'customer' inside.

Can you tell us how they do that? How long is the wait? What does it look like inside?

Iquiring minds wanna know.

Thanks again.


Tess Conrad said...

Hey, Mopsie, great to meet you, and thanks for the kind words!

The law is/was that you have to be interred for a year +1 day.

The tombs were built to be ovens, really, and in New Orleans humidity, that year +1 was enough time to break just about everything (coffin included)down, leaving only bone.

To close the 'oven,' the opening is bricked up and covered in a thin layer of concrete, the date of the last interment etched into it, so there's no doubt:

In family tombs, the coffin is usually on railings, so things sort of naturally fall down into the receptacle. In society tombs and wall vaults (and newer tombs), there's a solid base, and the human remains are bagged and placed in the bottom of the vault.

If too many family members died within that year, the bodies would be placed in the wall vaults I mentioned, 'renting' them until enough time had passed and their tomb could be reopened.

Here's a photo from Odd Fellow's Rest Cemetery, which has long been abandoned. The stone has long since fallen away, but it shows quite a bit.

An old family tomb, it had room for two coffins- on the top level you can see the bars that stretch across the gap.

The bottom bars have rusted, and the unusual metal coffin has fallen through, now resting in the bottom where the bones would have fallen through:

Incidentally, if you'd like to see more from Odd Fellow's, which is quite amazing, make me a contact on Flick'r- since there are so many open tombs, I have most of them marked for friends and family only. I'd hate to be responsible for vandals wanting to get inside.

Whew- hope that helps and isn't too long winded!

Thanks again~