Cities of the Dead

On the cab ride from the airport, the driver, Ali, was perplexed by my questions about the cemeteries we passed and my eagerness to visit them.  I mentioned the famously ornate style of New Orleans cemeteries and their above ground tombs, built because of New Orleans’ unusually high water table, but his only response was, “It’s just slow cremation.” There are 42 extant cemeteries in New Orleans; I visited two.  Cemeteries are the best places to visit in a city, like a park but quieter, more serene, and with more stories.

New Orleans cemeteries are called Cities of the Dead, something that sounds so ancient and mystical, like Egypt.  The ones I visited were not so impressive for their size but for their character.  St. Roch’s was beautiful and silent.  The chapel was built in the 19th century during an outbreak of yellow fever, and dedicated to Saint Roch, whose patronage is invoked against plague.  The reliquary is filled with crutches and mannequin arms and heads, things left behind by parishioners who were miraculously cured. The chapel is painted a perfect churchly blue.  Many of the graves are very old, people with German, Italian and Irish last names who died a century or more ago, which reminded me of something I had read once, about there being two groups of the dead in some African cultures, the recently departed and the long dead:

The recently departed whose time overlapped with people still here are the Sasha, the living dead. They are not wholly dead, for they live on in the memories of the living … when the last person knowing an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the Sasha for the Zamani, the dead. As generalized ancestors, the Zamani are not forgotten but revered.  — James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

Loewen also quotes from John Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy:

It [the Zamani] is the final storehouse for all phenomena and events, the ocean of time in which everything becomes absorbed into a reality that is neither after nor before.

St. Roch’s cemetery felt inhabited by the Zamani, long-dead immigrants whose grandchildren have already passed. Maybe cemeteries feel so peaceful because they exist somehow outside of time, inhabited as they are by people who have left this world and survive only in some other dimension, maybe not forgotten but certainly left alone.

St. Roch’s and St. Louis No. 1 cemeteries, New Orleans

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