Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Hot as an oven

It must have already been high noon when I parked my car on St. Roch Avenue, just outside the gates of St. Roch Cemetery #1, for the sun was high overhead, and as I walked through the gate with its white-washed angels, the light bounced off the marble tombs and I felt it hot on my face.

New Orleans is famous for its historic cemeteries. In a city built on a marshland, interring the dead posed quite a problem, since the water table was so high. You can't bury people if they won't stay underground.  Tombs were built above ground, and family vaults made of stone were lined up in rows along branching walkways, making the cemeteries resemble cities, hence the expression "Cities of the Dead."

The tombs resembled old-fashioned stone baker's ovens, and in this climate, they absorbed the sun's heat, effectively hastening the decomposition process by literally baking the remains. Families could re-open tombs in a few years, raking out shards of casket and loose hardware, packing the bones away compactly, leaving plenty of  room for the next generation.

Of all the city's cemeteries, St. Roch is one of the most fascinating. It was founded in 1876 by the pastor of Holy Trinity Church in the Marigny.

Just inside the gate, looking toward the Chapel
It was dedicated to St. Roch out of gratitude, because, despite a frightening epidemic of Yellow Fever in New Orleans, Holy Trinity's German Catholic congregation had been spared. Who better to thank than St. Roch, the patron saint of the sick, and bringer of miraculous cures?

The association with St. Roch has attracted pilgrims seeking the saint's intervention for personal health, and over the years, people whose prayers have been answered have left behind ex-votos, or offerings that depict their cast-off afflictions.

In the Chapel, a battered plaster statue of St. Roch presides, accompanied by his companion dog, who, according to the story, saved the young healer when he himself was stricken with plague. The altar rests upon a glass case displaying a facsimile of the dead body of Christ, To the right of the altar, there's a little room beyond an iron gate. It is in here that the tokens of gratitude are displayed.

Plaster hearts represent those with heart conditions. Crutches lean against the wall. Plaster limbs and leg braces, a grisly statue of St. Lucy bearing a plate holding her gouged-out eyeballs; hands ears and molds of dentures rest in the clutter amid peeling paint, tossed coins and dead bugs. The floor of the little room is paved with tiles stamped "Thanks," and "Merci."

There are also more generic offerings left behind. When I visited, a cigarette was laid between two silk flowers, and at the entry gate, a bottle of Jarritos soda and a can of beans were tucked neatly into the corner of the gate. I left behind a couple of dollar bills, in gratitude for taking my photos.

The St. Roch neighborhood is shabby now, having been hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, but from the 1830s, it was a diverse neighborhood of immigrants and free people of color; the names on the cemetery's tombs are mainly German and French.

You can tell the cemetery still holds meaning for people - many of the tombs were decorated with flowers, and dates on inscriptions are recent.

When I stepped from the cool blue-ceiling-ed chapel, the baking hot sun pounded down again, and I shielded my eyes from the glare. Near the gate, a maintenance worker's leaf blower whirred, but he cut it off as I passed by, and gave me a nod.

August 16 is the official Saint's Day for St. Roch. I bet it will be a scorcher.


scout said...

Calls to mind the church at Chimayo, NM, where those who have been healed have left behind crutches, etc. I love your dispatches.

Anonymous said...

So great you were able to stroll in. Supposedly only guided tours are supposed to be allowed now, no individuals. One term for what the families "swept up" is crypt jelly (don't think you'd want it with morning toast). - naomi

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Wow, fascinating! I didn't get to any of the big cemeteries, only a little one very close to the French Quarter (I was alone with my 4 young kids at the time).
I knew about the above-ground burial tombs but not about the ability to reuse them (smart!) or the many offerings.