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Grave Ornaments

A photograph of grave ornaments
  • By Tanya Marcuse
  • Issue 9
  • On Beauty

On a whim I visited St. Louis Cemetery Nº 1 on the first day of a brief trip to New Orleans. I had read a little about this cemetery: how it was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, how its dead are housed in mausoleum-style tombs, since the area sits below sea level and the ground is unfit for interment (others told me this is more a tradition than a water-table issue). Basin Street was dotted with signs for “Graveyard Tours,” variously historic and haunted, but on this freezing mid-January day, unseasonably cold for the Gulf Coast, the graveyard was nearly empty. St. Louis occupies a city block. But it is enclosed so that from the outside you have no sense of what lies within. Inside it’s like a small village. We walked down the lanes. My ten-year- old son, Jonah, said, “This isn’t a death-y place!” and I agreed. On many of the monuments were colorful or edible offerings to the dead–Mardi Gras beads, apples, hotel room keys, half-eaten hamburgers, coupons. Still little lives.

The next day I set out to find Greenwood Cemetery, a streetcar ride away, imagining a place like St. Louis, only larger. But apart from a magnificent statue of a twelve-point buck that marked the entrance, Greenwood Cemetery was unremarkable. With its grassy wide lanes, stately tombs, and overall tidiness, Greenwood was like the Upper East Side of graveyards. A few potted plants had blown over in the wind, but there were no offerings left on the graves.

That night, a tip from a bartender put me on the trail of Holt Cemetery, the pauper’s graveyard, where my daughter Eve and I headed the next morning. We took the same streetcar to Greenwood—Cemetery Line—as I had the previous day, but walked farther from the last stop. My first impression was of a community garden. A few cars were leaving when we arrived, and gravediggers were busy mounding up the earth on a fresh grave. They balanced some ribboned flowers atop the soil, and then Eve and I were alone in the garden of the dead. We looked from grave to grave entranced. Teddy bears, Bibles in zip-lock bags, clothing, leftover Styrofoam hearts from long-decayed bouquets—not offerings such as those for legendary figures, like the “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau in St. Louis, but piercingly individual adornments. On one mound, unmarked but for a scattering of faded artificial flowers, we saw bones in the dirt—first a patella, then a mandible, and others less identifiable.

Graveyards are a subject I have talked many photography students out of shooting over the years, too easy an emblem of melancholy. Here, though, the graveyards seemed to me to be about the living: about the porous skin of dirt that divides us from the dead; about the specificity of time, place, and class; about forgetting as much as about remembering.

Tanya Marcuse's series Wax Bodies in on view through April 2015 as part of Roll Up, Roll Up! An Anatomical Waxwork Cabinet Meets Art, at the Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, in Dresden.