Monday, July 15, 2019

Above Ground Burials and Oven Crypts: A Toasty New Orleans Tradition

When an Ohioan such as myself sets foot in Louisiana, there is little to be done to prepare yourself for the tropical, humid heat that inundates the city in the summer months. The city of New Orleans does not experience the deep freezes that I am used to, nor can you dig a proper Ohio root cellar, due to the extremely high water table. If I were to dig more than a couple of feet into the soil, water would start to fill the hole and ruin my plans. The early settlers of New Orleans experienced the same problems when they tried to bury their dead.

As you can imagine, it is not easy to bury coffins at the proper depth with a high water table. If you were to succeed in getting your loved one entombed in their watery grave, keeping them there was another matter. Even recently, heavy rains and flooding have caused coffins to rise to the surface and float in the rising waters. No one wanted the eternal rest of someone they loved being disturbed, and exposed, rotting human corpses causes quite a health and safety issue, so the community knew something had to be done. 

The solution was to change the way people were interred after death. Instead of being placed in the ground, a system of temporary, above ground burials was developed. This system was born from the existing burial traditions in the areas where New Orleans residents had immigrated from, such as Spain, Italy, and France, that were inclusive of above ground burials. Some families purchased tombs that were only for members of their immediate family, such as this one:

You may have done a double take when I mentioned that the burials were temporary, but this was, and still is so, in New Orleans. When a member of the family died, they were placed in a plain casket of simple, easily degradable wood. Then, the casket was placed in the tomb for a year and a day, to firstly ensure that any death-causing diseases were no longer harmful to the living. Also, during his time, temperatures inside the tombs reach an extremely high heat, comparable to the heat level of a modern oven. The heat and insects of New Orleans hasten decomposition in such a manner that only brittle bones, bits of casket wood, and metal pieces affixed to the casket remain when the tomb is opened again after a year and a day. In the early days of New Orleans, the pieces of the casket were removed and burned, while the remains were pushed to the back of the tomb, falling into an underground chamber called a caveau (This is where the phrase, "I wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole comes from... the pole being the device used to push remains to the back of the tomb). There, the bones of hundreds of members of this family would mingle in eternity. These family crypts are typically very expensive, and reserved for the wealthy. So, what does a person of average means do when they find themselves dead in New Orleans?

Another option was available in the wall oven crypts that surround many New Orleans cemeteries. This one that is no longer used is located in St. Louis Cemetery #1: 

The oven crypts got their name from how they resemble a brick oven used for baking. The only thing baking in these tombs, however, were people who were buried communally. The process was the same for that of a private tomb, except the residents of this tomb may not be related or have a permanent family interface on their exterior. Places of employment or benevolent organizations may have also purchased private tombs for their members and their families to be interred in. This ensured that paupers and princes all received a proper burial. These reusable crypts also saved space since cemeteries can often become overcrowded and unsanitary otherwise. 

Today, many of the tombs are no longer used and are slowly falling apart and returning to the soil of New Orleans. The tombs and crypts that are still in use follow different rules, as well, since the caveaus are no longer used. A loved one's remains are collected and moved to a special container that may be pushed to one side of the crypt to allow for another occupant. 

My words can only express some of the unique qualities of the captivating cemeteries of New Orleans. Check out this video made by famed death-care advocate, author, and educator Caitlin Doughty about the oven crypts:

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Voodoo Queen of New Orleans

The reputed final resting place of Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans”. 

She was born a free woman of color around the year 1801. Her reputation as a practitioner of voodoo, or a combination of spiritual practices that include African, Catholic, and Native American traditions, often overshadows the fact that she also was an independently wealthy hairdresser, devoted Catholic (She would not have believed her Catholic faith interfered with her ability to practice voodoo) who prayed with condemned prisoners in their final hours, champion of poor women who she bailed out of jail when they could not afford to, and a willing volunteer who nursed the sick during outbreaks of yellow fever that plagued New Orleans during this era. She was said to walk as though she owned the streets, until she died in 1881, and her daughter and grand daughter carried on her legacy. It was said the females in her family line looked so much like her that a rumor started that she had been made immortal by the deities she served while practicing her voodoo spells and rituals. 

Her obituary was published as follows in The Daily Picayune on June 18, 1881:


The cemetery where her tomb is located, St. Louis Cemetery #1, is closed to the general public. This closure began a few years ago due to misuse and vandalism occurring within the cemetery. Her tomb was crumbling and covered in symbols, such as the "X", that many people mistakenly engraved when they were led to believe it held meaning to voodoo practitioners. The Catholic Diocese of New Orleans permits people to come through on authorized tours, so don't try to sneak a peek of the voodoo queen when you aren't on a tour!

I'd like to remember Marie Laveau as a woman in control of herself and her destiny, which alone is amazing for a woman born in her time. The mystery and allure of voodoo is interesting, don't get me wrong, but it is her dedication to her community and ability to command the respect of many that makes her incredible! 

Monday, March 18, 2019

A Vintage Piece of Our Past

Today, while perusing the local thrift store, I spotted a book with a white and gold textured cover. Upon picking it up and inspecting it, I discovered that it was something very unique. This book was an unused memorial book from a funeral home called the Pim Funeral Home that once operated in Wooster, Ohio. The illustrations are in pale, pastel colors that are reminiscent of the 1940s or 1950s:

Turning the pages of this book revealed poems by Alfred Tennyson, William Cullen Bryant, John G. Whittier, and other anonymous authors, as well as passages from the Bible. All of these passages focus on the nature of death as a part of life that should not be feared:

An article in the Akron Beacon Journal in the 1970s about the home itself reads as follows:

“Built in 1860 by a Civil War captain, George P. Emrich, this house on N. Market Street in Wooster has retained its basic design over the years. It now is the Pim-Endres Funeral Home and is owned by James and Patricia Endres. The outside walls of the house are 23-inch solid masonry, and the inside walls and partitions are the originals. The third floor was once a ballroom. It is known as the Anna house, named for William and Vinnie Harper Annat, the second owners, who at one time were active in local and state Republican politics.”

The home still stands, and it is a grand, white Victorian mansion that is now home to a law office. I am not sure when the home stopped being a funeral home, but this was a cool discovery that helped me learn about a home in my community that I’ve always been interested in!

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Love-Crazed Maiden of Charlie's Puddle

The Rittman Historical Society presented an incredibly well-researched, informative, and spine-tingling group of Halloween tales at their monthly meeting last night, held in the old Knupp Church.

My favorite tale was about the Indian maiden who was driven mad after her love was killed in a skirmish with another tribe. It is said that, each year, as the hour grows close to midnight on October 21st, the love-crazed spirt of this woman "... rides a canoe up and down the River Styx and into the center of Charlie’s Puddle... before disappearing (Rolik, 2011)."

The 21st of October is fast approaching, do you think her spirit will emerge for a midnight ride this year?

Here is a full article published by The Daily Record about the maiden, as well as a ghostly train said to recreate its final, fiery ride off of a train trestle not far from the maiden's haunting grounds:

San Felipe de Neri Church

Built in 1793 and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, this church is one of the oldest buildings in the entire city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is still a functional Catholic parish. According to the church website, the original church collapsed in a rainstorm in 1792. This earlier church stood to the West of the town's plaza, with a cemetery to the East. In 1869, all of the burials that could be located at this cemetery were moved to the newly founded Mount Calvary Cemetery. There are stories of forgotten burials being found during ongoing construction projects (Source: Ghosts of Old Town Albuquerque by Cody Polston). The site of the cemetery is now a quaint plaza with specialty shops and a fountain. I can't help but wonder if there were coffins under my feet as I browsed...

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Endless Winter: The Short Life of Fort Laurens, Ohio's Only Revolutionary War Fort

In the 1770s, Ohio was not yet the agricultural, political hub in our nation's heartland as we have come to know it. Ohio was not even a part of the United States because this union did not yet exist. Colonists who longed to govern themselves in a country of their own had turned a decades long dispute with the British monarchy into a physical battle for independence only 3 years earlier. Ohio in the 1770s was a frontier which was populated by many complex groups of people with diverse intentions. Many of the Native Americans in the Ohio Country, such as the Wyandot tribe, aligned themselves with the British and their military stronghold to the Northwest, Fort Detroit. Christian missionaries from Moravia had come to Ohio in the early 1770s and established the first permanent settlement, Schoennbrunn, where converted Delaware natives lived alongside their Moravian brethren and teachers. Schoennbrunn and other subsequent Moravian settlements in the Ohio Country were neutral in the conflict due to their religious beliefs. Fort Laurens came to be because American commanders saw a potential to utilize these natives and their unique relationships with Westerners to make the Ohio Country play a dramatic part in the war. However, Fort Laurens would end up being considered a failed venture.

Fort Laurens was named after the current president of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens. Laurens was a close friend of the man who would lead the campaign in the Ohio Country, Lachlan McIntosh, who was commander of the Western Department of the Continental Army. McIntosh had successfully defended the Pennsylvania frontier at Fort Pitt, and he believed he could do the same at Fort Laurens. By December of 1778, construction on the fort was complete. Americans hoped Fort Laurens would be able to provide safety for settlers and friendly natives who lived in the Ohio County and Pennsylvania, who were subject to frequent raids by natives who were allied with the British. It was also hoped that a strong American victory might rally neutral natives and settlers to take up arms in the name of patriotism. McIntosh and the Continental Army also hoped the fort would provide a force capable of destroying Fort Detroit and any British presence in the Ohio Country, restoring order, safety, and freedom to everyone who lived there. 

However, from the very beginning, Fort Laurens faced numerous challenges. Completing construction on the fort and deciding to attempt to make it livable in the middle of the winter was a foolish idea. McIntosh also decided to wait until spring to launch any attacks against the British, a decision that would come back to haunt him. The Continental soldiers who were coming to serve at this fort rose up against the crude and unforgiving environment created by an Ohio winter. McIntosh had to take most of his men back to Fort Pitt just to keep them from starting a mutiny against him. McIntosh started East towards Fort Pitt with the majority of his men, leaving a little over 100 men under the command of Colonel John Gibson with little supplies or hope. A mutiny was nearly risen against Gibson, because of harsh conditions and lack of supplies. The winter continued to get worse when a British liaison to the natives in the area, Simon Girty, led a band of natives in a reconnaissance mission to Fort Laurens. Girty's men came across a group of soldiers from Fort Laurens as they were hunting. Two of the Continental soldiers were killed, and another was taken captive by Girty. This captive revealed to the British that the men at Fort Laurens were starving, desperate, and had no definitive plans to attack the British until the spring. The British would use this information to their full advantage. 

Knowing the men at Fort Laurens were weak in body and spirit, British Captain Henry Bird devised a plan. The fort was surrounded by British soldiers and their native allies. and no one was permitted to leave or enter the fort. Reinforcements from Fort Pitt arrived after the fort had already been surrounded, and these soldiers turned around and went back to Fort Pitt out of fear for their lives. The men in the fort began to starve, eating their own clothing at times. Even the British forces surrounding the fort were also starving because they were quite far from Fort Detroit, and it was the middle of winter.

On Match 20th, 1779, British forces gave in and allowed a relief force to make its way to Fort Laurens. Over the winter, 30 men had died as a result of violent altercations, disease, or starvation. General Washington was informed of the fort's general inadequacy, and he gave orders for soldiers to retreat, and the fort was abandoned. The last of the soldiers left in August of 1779, less than a year after the fort had been built. In reality, the fort was too far from Fort Detroit to attack it with any strength, and waiting an entire season to launch an attack would never have worked to the Continental Army's advantage, anyway. Ohio settlements in Schoennbrunn and Gnadenhutten were too far from the fort to be protected by it, as well. Essentially, Fort Laurens was doomed from the beginning. Building a fort far way from the targets it intended to attack or protect set it up for failure. Starvation and lack of morale were the final nails in Fort Laurens' coffin, and there would never be another attempt to use the Ohio Country as a major playing field in the war. Local militia took the task of protecting citizens unto itself, and any plans to attack Fort Detroit were forgotten. 

Eventually, Fort Laurens was dismantled by local farmers looking for sturdy timber. The site was reclaimed by dense Ohio woodlands, and a section of the land that the fort had once sat on became part of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Today, none of the original fort remains above the ground. Archaeological digs have revealed where the fort stood, and an outline is marked in the ground so you can walk the outline of the original fort. Historical markers along the path tell you more about the fort, and point out where various structures in the fort were located. A small museum is also on-site, and holds some artifacts recovered from the site that help paint a picture of what life was like at the fort. 21 of the men who lost their lives at Fort Laurens are entombed in a temperature controlled, above ground crypt, which is located in the museum:

The bodies are stored in this manner to keep the bones preserved. Scientists or historians may need to study the bones, and this gives them the opportuity to do so. Some of the bodies found on the grounds could not be identified. The Tomb of the Unknown Patriot of the American Revolution honors these men who rest without a name: 

Here is more information about Fort Laurens:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Death of Quentin Roosevelt


This lonely grave on a broad plain hard by the little village of Chamery, near the city of Reims, in France, will ever be sacred to American young manhood because it contains the remains of one who embodied in his own person to an eminent degree those qualities of heart and soul which led so many thousands of them to cross the seas and to face for their country's sake death and mutilation in a foreign land. 

Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest of Theodore Roosevelt's children, a lieutenant in the 95th American Aero Squadron, First Pursuit Group, fell in single combat with a more experienced adversary, at Chamery, near Reims, on July 14th, 1917. Although new to the flying game he had but three days before won the Croix de Guerre by a daring exploit typical of the man. While scouting over the German lines he became separated from his companies and, on dropping through a patch of cloud, found himself in the rear of six German machines. Prudence dictated an about face and retreat, but it was never Roosevelt's way, to retreat, and he resolved to attack. When within shooting distance he opened on them with his machine gun and had the satisfaction of seeing one of the enemy lurch to a side and fall. Instantly veering in a wide arc he flew for the Allied lines, pursued by the five remaining German planes. Bullets flew overhead and on every side, but fortune was with him that day and he escaped without a wound. 

One of our own doughboys, in the cap and ulster we so well remember, stands by Lieutenant Roosevelt's grave in silent tribute to the dead, as many Americans will stand in the years to come. 

-Inscription on the back of Keystone View Company's stereopticon card depicting the grave of Quentin Roosevelt (Roosevelt's death date is actually July 14th, 1918)

Quentin Roosevelt's death at the tender age of 20 provides us with a unique glimpse into how Americans viewed not only the Roosevelt family, but World War I as well. As I read this small piece, the first thing I noticed was that the writer lists Quentin as Theodore Roosevelt's youngest child. It was certainly common knowledge that Roosevelt had had a daughter, Alice, with his first wife, Alice Lee, who died shortly after the birth of her daughter in 1884. Perhaps the author meant that Quentin was the youngest of Theodore and Edith Carow Roosevelt's children. Or, could the author have been omitting Alice from his statement because of her keen ability to attract scandal? It is impossible to know...

The writer's statement also glorifies the service of Quentin and other doughboys without giving in to the shocking brutality and seemingly needless loss of life that came with World War I. We aren't given an account of Quentin's death, but his heroism in other instances is documented in detail. Making sense of his death by emphasizing the heroism he had shown, great service he had done for his country, and example he set for other young men to follow was integral for justifying the great loss of life. 

The death of Quentin Roosevelt came about after he was shot down by German Fokker Chasse airplanes while he was out on a patrol in his Nieuport 28. The plane in this photo is quite similar to the one Roosevelt flew: 

Roosevelt was buried where he fell by German soldiers, which is the gravesite that is depicted in the photo (One of his original burial crosses is also displayed at The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, OH). In the 1950s, his body was exhumed so it could be buried next to his brother, Ted, who perished during World War II.