Cast Iron Mausoleums

When I think of cast iron I tend to think of two things; cornbread and cemeteries. Cornbread cooked in a cast iron skillet is far better than any other, and cemeteries usually have iron gates…and apparently in New Orleans, they also have iron mausoleums.

I’d never seen one before, so I literally shot out of the car when we spied the first one in Cypress Grove Cemetery. I could not believe it- it was rusted to a bright orange-ish brown but still sturdy and straight, looking impenetrable. I was smitten. I sent a photo to Gus and he wrote back that he was packing his things and would be ready to move in in a couple of hours. I felt the same way, morbid as it may seem. I did knock gently on one just to hear the ring of the iron, and thankfully, no one answered.

My main experience with cast iron in a cemetery has been the occasional grave marker and of course, ornate iron fence work. A lot of it around here seemed to come from Cincinnati according to the small name plates that I occasionally find on gates and fences, and it looks like you can still get ironwork from that area. Additionally, I’ve always been fascinated with the cast iron caskets, especially the Fisk model patented in 1848. Plus, the thing had a viewing window, which is always a draw for me.

The cast iron mausoleums that we saw appeared to be kits, since we kept seeing the same type over and over. One model was in the same cemetery in both the original rusted iron, painted white, and painted silver, which had the exact same sheen as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. The silver one had a makers mark on the bottom of the door that said ‘Robert Wood & Co Makers Phila’. His foundry was at 1136 Ridge Avenue in Philly. Online you can view his original catalogs, and they’re fascinating! I scrolled through a book published in 1867 and saw porch railings, spiral staircases, lampposts, and a few cemetery ornaments such as angels and lions. All ornate. All magical. I could never choose if I were building a house in the late 1800’s.

Robert Wood was a blacksmith who operated under his own name until taking a partner in 1857 and becoming Wood and Perot. Robert Wood and Co. became the name after Perot’s death in 1865.

 

The family name was sometimes custom made for the front of the mausoleum and on others it simply said ‘Family Tomb’. The motif on many was the upside down torch, though there were also angels, and one even had an ocean theme with mysterious fish on the sides and waterspouts that looked like seashells. The iron was placed over a brick and mortar base that you can see in one of the photos. Everything, down to the doorknobs and locks was perfectly and ornately detailed. It really is an incredible process and I’m sure these things will last for many more years.

It’s hard to say how many of these came from the same maker since I didn’t see the mark on all of them, but New Orleans has 16 of them in various cemeteries in the city. The ones we saw were in Cypress Grove, St. Patrick’s, and Odd Fellow’s Rest. (You have to look though the fence at St. Patrick’s to see those since Odd Fellow’s Rest is closed for repair.) There is also one in Lafayette Cemetery that I somehow missed, but it’s been in the news because it inspired the resting place for Lestat, Anne Rice’s vampire in Interview With a Vampire (the novel- please skip the movie). The tomb requires restoration and the quote is between 50-70,000 dollars, so they clearly cannot last forever. The tomb is for the Karstendiek family. According to the article, that one was imported from Germany.

Whatever their background it was such a novelty to see so many examples in New Orleans, and I know the next time I visit the city I’ll be trying to see the rest of them. Happy February to everyone! Today is Imbolc so I’m off to burn some sage and light a candle.

Holt Cemetery, New Orleans

 

We skipped off to New Orleans for the week after Christmas, and came home the day before New Years Eve. Skipped may not be the right term, more like wordlessly plodded. We had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch our flight, but the good thing is that we were in the city by 8 a.m., tightly clutching hot beverages and in shock from the cold. I wore Shawn’s heaviest coat the whole time and looked crazy in many of the photos, but I was mostly warm.

Holt was number one on my list of cemeteries to visit. It’s not the most talked about cemetery, it’s not fancy, or crumbling, or full of interesting vaults and crypts. Holt is it’s own kind of iconic New Orleans burial ground.

For one thing, all burials are in ground unlike the other city cemeteries. I know people say that it can’t be done because of the water table but they are successfully burying people here and the caskets are staying in the ground, so I think a lot of those suppositions are rooted in myths and urban legends. The vaults that you find in the other cemeteries are efficient at what they do. People decompose rapidly and with little fuss, and a year later it’s safe to place another body in the vault. However, coping burials are also popular there, where the plot is framed in concrete and the burial vault covered in gravel and dirt. When we went to Lafayette Cemetery it had rained all day and one of the ledger stones was broken in one of the family plots. I leaned over the fence for a better look and saw that the entire grave was filled with water, which horrified me for some reason. I’m not sure why Holt is able to do what it does if it’s true about the water table being so high and unforgiving.

Holt Cemetery is considered a potter’s field and a burial space for the indigent who can’t afford other cemetery sites. It was established in 1879 according to the Save Our Cemeteries website, and has been in operation ever since. It is still an active site. The morning that we arrived we pulled into the cemetery gates around 10 a.m. and saw workmen at the back digging graves…by hand. In all of the visits I’ve made to cemeteries in the South, that was something I’d never seen before, but I honestly don’t believe that they could get the equipment in there in order to do it any other way. The place is packed full, and you can barely walk through without knowing that you are stepping on someone’s grave.

At the back of the cemetery is a brick retort that looks like it was from an old crematorium. It has been locked shut, but the fact that it’s there remains a mystery. I’m not sure why it’s there or if there was a building around it at one time. It has graves crowded up against it on all sides.

Most of the headstones and markers here are all handmade. We saw raw wood, painted wood, plastic, a road sign with a person’s name painted on it, PVC piping, bricks, an oven rack, concrete, all kinds of fencing, and multiple statues- everything from a bunny to the Virgin Mary. Lots of flowers were on the graves in blue, black, and purple. A lot of stuffed animals were on graves, and even framed photos. It’s a bright space, but in the morning after a recent rain in the cold weather it was bleak and sad, with standing water at the curves of the road and in the drainage ditch that runs through the space, and squelching mud everywhere you stepped.

This cemetery was in the news last year because a young woman in New Orleans was going out after heavy rain and harvesting bones that she saw on the graves, and then posting them in a not so discreet fashion online. She was eventually apprehended, but was convinced that what she was doing wasn’t grave robbing since the bones were right there on top of the soil, and she wasn’t charging people for anything but the shipping when they wanted the items. (She was doing a brisk trade, as well.) Some people collect bones just because, and some people purchase or steal them for spell work and magic. Either way, it’s a good idea not to touch bones in cemeteries unless you’re certain it’s from an animal. I’ve picked up animal bones on cemetery walks and have a deer vertebrae in my car (I didn’t know where else to put it), but human bones…no. It’s safe to say that when you visit this city you will see bones in a cemetery. Just leave them there, they do tend to wash up sometimes. On our visit we saw bones at 3 different sites, but not at Holt Cemetery. More on that later.

Please visit this one if you go to New Orleans. It’s much more humble than the others, but certainly filled with loveĀ  and sweet tributes everywhere you look.