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: