Thoughts Amid A New Orleans Cemetery
We recently had the opportunity to tour some of New Orleans’ famous above-ground cemeteries, including St. Louis #1, St. Louis #2, and Lafayette Cemeteries. The original Spanish and French colonists, or “Creoles” brought with them this Latin/Catholic tradition of tomb construction. (Anthropologists dismiss the theory that above-ground burial was necessary due to New Orleans’ swampy water table. There are too many similar tombs in the lands of the colonists’ origins.)
It’s one thing to gawk, to stand in awe, or to simply experience the feeling a place inspires, but we could not stop ourselves. We had to question it. Amid these outward signs of beauty and community and tradition and love, a freethinker had to ask, “Was all this a waste?”
The Fortunes Spent
The limestone, granite, and concrete required to build these elaborate tombs must have been imported from hundreds of miles away, as natural exposed rock is not found anywhere near the delta. This trade occurred in an era before highways, internal combustion engines, and, for the earliest tombs, railroads. Serious muscle and money once hauled these rare materials to New Orleans.
The people who sacrificed this money and labor lived without electricity or plumbing, in tiny houses on mud streets, without access to healthcare or food security. Infant mortality and yellow fever were facts of life, as the graveyard itself testifies.
In this context, the sacrifice required to build magnificent tombs – or cathedrals for that matter – seems misplaced. No, the buyers of these tombs couldn’t have purchased technology, but they certainly could have bought better drainage, sanitation, food, housing, or roads.
Perhaps the labor savings of ground burials could have meant fewer injured backs or more labor available for lifesaving infrastructure. There is certainly enough brick and mortar devoted to the dead to have built a respectable small hospital.
Also, it goes without saying that slaves watched these ornaments being built, at a price that might have freed their entire family from torture. If we could go back, what would we advise? Spending resources on a tomb, or on freeing a family from bondage?
The Status Bought
It would be incorrect to say nothing was bought for the fortunes spent housing the corpses of New Orleans. The same thing was bought by the sponsors of these graves as is being bought today on a luxury car dealer’s lot, or in a neighborhood of McMansions.
A family tomb was a status symbol in that culture.
It showed that the sponsosr were established, creditworthy, and pious – the kind of people to do business or politics with. The conspicuous consumption of more resources than are necessary to bury the dead is exactly analogous to the modern conspicuous consumption of expensive houses, cars, and fashion. In all these cases, money buys social status and personal identity, rather than meeting an actual need.
Realize this, and the cemetery transforms before one’s eyes into a marketplace for the living.
The connection between religion and this marketplace for social status is no coincidence. It is the churches that claim to raise human beings up the cosmic status scale, decide who can marry whom, justify racism and slavery, and claim to author morality itself so that only fellow believers are considered respectable and trustworthy.
People do not wear their finest clothes to church to impress a god who they think also observes them on the toilet. They dress to impress other people.
As one’s eyes move from the cemetery to the church, one sees the market continue.
The Vulnerable False Thought
Some gravestones contained inscriptions or poems indicating belief in an afterlife. Perhaps if we believe our departed loved one is observing us, the pressure is on to build them a nicer tomb. Perhaps our guard is down a bit due to this added vulnerability, and we allow the funeral director, priest, or casket company to up-sell us a bit more than we would otherwise.
The abuses of today are bad enough that we can only imagine the pressure tactics in place 100 or 200 years ago.
What stopped people from rejecting these hustlers and shysters? How could it not be a disadvantage to the bereaved for them to imagine the soul of their loved ones looking down with disfavor as they try to haggle out of spending another week’s wages on a limestone flower pot like everyone else has?
In this treacherous marketplace, the bereaved of New Orleans found themselves sabotaged from within by the doctrine that the dead will rise from their tombs upon Jesus’ return to earth. Who implanted this idea into their heads but the same people running the cemeteries and associated industries?
How surprised would the purchasers of these crypts be to learn that Jesus had not yet returned to earth nearly 200 years later, and that their expensive tombs would be crumbling by now. As recently as 2010, 41% of Americans believed that Jesus would probably or definitely return within 40 years.
Alas, fateful decisions are made when false premises are in the mix. Each beautiful tomb represents tuition unpaid, investments not made, and various degrees of financial ruin to a family.
Do the few surviving descendants who visit the tombs today understand the wealth they’d have inherited had their ancestors bought stocks instead of stone blocks? Do they understand how the trajectory of their family would have changed had the children at that lavish funeral instead witnessed a pauper’s burial and then gone to college?
The Bright Side of Death
Yet there’s a bright side. It is not to be seen in the graveyard; it is to be heard on Frenchman Street.
The elaborate funerals of New Orleans subsidized musicians, and when those musicians went secular, jazz was born, and music changed forever. Fleeting sound has outlasted stone.
Likewise, may the wandering melody of freethought outlast the rigidity of dogmatism.