Friday, January 28, 2011

Reading Military Grave Markers


When you walk around a cemetery, you can look at the grave markers to get a sort of capsule biography of the people buried under them:  the name, dates, usually a religious symbol and sometimes a few words from a grieving family member.   Sometimes you can imagine a little bit about them from these words.

Military markers are much less personal and just tell you the equivalent of name, rank and serial number. Well, maybe not the serial number, but certainly more information about the deceased’s military service than anything else. 

Take a look at the marker below, one of our Confederate markers commemorating a man who fought in the Confederate army.  This is one of several markers placed by Colonel John Masters, a member of the Sons of the Confederacy, in the year 2000 to mark the burial place of some of St Augustine’s Confederate soldiers.  It is a Veterans Administration marker and reflects the current format for such markers.


We see that it belongs to Second Lieutenant Charles D. Segui (the latter is a Minorcan name). Above his name and rank is what is referred to as the Southern Cross of Honor, originally created by the Congress of the Confederate States in 1862 and intended to be the equivalent of the US Medal of Honor.  It is now approved by the Veterans Administration for placement in the “symbol of belief” area of the marker, which is usually for religious symbols, and can be placed on the marker of anyone who served honorably in the Confederate Army.

Underneath, we see the abbreviations indicating that he was in Company B, 3rd Florida Infantry, Confederate States of America.

And last of all, his dates.  Charles Segui was only 31 when he died, but it was several years after the Civil War ended, so we know that he was not a battlefield casualty. And other than the above details, we learn nothing more about him:  no wife, no children are listed as grieving for him; no parents as having predeceased him; no hopes of Heaven or fond remembrance. But what we see is really the sum of what we know about anyone buried under a military marker.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Matthew Kear’s Book Arrives!

It’s here!  Matthew Kear’s 2009 Cornell University thesis on Tolomato Cemetery, which was instrumental in the formation of the Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association, is now available to anyone and everyone on the Internet publisher

The book is available in printed format or in the immediately downloadable PDF format, which can also be read on your Kindle or any e-reader that you possess.  I already had a copy of the print version, so I bought the Kindle (PDF) format version and was impressed by the clarity of the photos and maps (when you zoom in on them). They display beautifully and full-size on a Kindle DX or any other larger device that can display a full-size page.

The print copy is $29.99, and they will deliver it to you very rapidly and efficiently.  The Kindle/PDF copy is $12.99 and you can download it right then and there.

This is a very comprehensive view of Tolomato. It gives you a good overview of the history, enough descriptions of the people buried there so that if your interest is in the existing marked burials, you can do more research, and a very good description of the existing markers, their condition, and the overall condition of the space (although another tree has fallen since Matthew wrote his thesis). Go to Lulu now!

In ReverenceLuluCover

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

White Bronze?

Most of the existing markers at Tolomato Cemetery are carved tablets, usually of marble, although other materials appear. The one that is unique is the marker of John and Mary Reyes and Mrs. Mary Ponce, also known in the cemetery inventory as “No. 86.”  It’s made of a material referred to by its manufacturer as “white bronze” – which was actually plain old zinc, but just sounded a little classier.


The marker surmounts a brick barrel vault; most of the vaults at Tolomato probably had tablets on them originally, but many of them have disappeared over the years and the inhabitants of the vaults are no longer identified.  This one, however, was particularly durable.


“White bronze” was made and marketed by one manufacturer, the Monumental Bronze Company, of Bridgeport, Connecticut, starting in 1879.

The technique for making the white bronze markers was actually developed in 1873. It involved using a full-size wax model to make a plaster cast, which was then cut into sections and used for casting the zinc. The zinc sections were fused together with melted zinc, producing a hollow monument. In the case of the Mary Ponce marker, the name is cast as part of the marker, but separate nameplates could be screwed on if there were subsequent burials under the same marker. The Monumental Bronze Company closed in 1939 and manufacture of this type of marker seems to have ceased.

John Reyes died in 1875, his wife died in 1876, and Mrs. Mary Ponce died in 1883, just before the cemetery was closed to burials. We assume that the marker was put up shortly after her death.


As you can see, there is a hole in the base of the marker. This is dangerous to the marker, since it permits water to enter and will degrade the zinc.  We hope to have it repaired. 

Matthew Kear, in his thesis In Reverence, explains the marker very well. He writes:

No. 86 bears great significance as a blending of two architectural traditions. Mounted on the parapet of a masonry barrel vault, it represents a blending of a southern funerary architectural tradition with one of the great northern technological innovations in American monumental industry in the nineteenth century.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

And You Think Tolomato Has Problems…

On the last day of my stay in New Orleans, I decided I had to do the tour with the Save Our Cemeteries  (SOC) guide, so I went back to St. Louis No. 1.  The guide, a volunteer named Adam who is also a professional tour guide elsewhere, was great and it was a factual but entertaining tour. 

The SOC group has about 30 docents, many of them professional tour guides, who lead trips to two of the historic cemeteries, St Louis No. 1 and Lafayette. The tours last one hour and cost $12-15 dollars, with the money going to their preservation funds. I didn’t have time to get to Lafayette, but visiting St Louis No. 1 with an SOC guide definitely made up for it.  Here is Adam with a “table tomb.”


One interesting difference between the St Augustine cemeteries and the New Orleans cemeteries is that the latter are still open and still have burials. There is a great deal of public access as a result, and since there is no permanent caretaker or guard stationed there, visitors occasionally run riot.

Below is the tomb of Marie Laveau, who is known as the “voodoo priestess.” This is despite the fact that her obituary, which was published in the New York Times when she died in 1881, highlighted her life as a good Catholic and woman known for her charity to Church causes. Whatever the true story, obviously the “voodoo priestess” shtick attracted more tourism, and that has been the focus for many a long year now. 

People come out to visit her tombs and leave trinkets. But they also scrawl three x’s on it, despite the fact that this amounts to desecration – this photo was taken only a couple of weeks after one of the SOC volunteers had repainted the tomb and left it sparkling white. 


The wall vault below is decorated on a regular basis by a man whose grandmother – if I recall correctly – is buried there. He changes the d├ęcor to fit the season.


There are, of course, the usual results of neglect, in the case of families who have died out and left no one to maintain the tomb.  There has also been vandalism and the theft of artifacts for the purpose of selling them. And we can’t forget the rather lurid scenes from Easy Rider that were filmed at night – without the knowledge of the Archdiocese – in St Louis No. 1.

But probably one of the oddest is the tomb of the actor Nicholas Cage. No, he’s not dead yet, but he recently built this hulking pyramid with its Latin motto (meaning “all comes from the one”) so he’d be ready when the time came.  Fortunately, a celebrity construction is one thing we don’t have to worry about at Tolomato.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

St Louis Cemetery No. 1 - NOLA

Despite the warnings of the dangers of visiting St Louis Cemetery No. 1, located on the rather seedy, skid-row like Basin Street in New Orleans, I found myself walking by it and simply couldn’t resist going in. Fortunately, it turned out to be quite safe, filled not only with organized tours but with large numbers of “Razorbacks,” that is, fans of the Arkansas football team, who are in town for the Sugarbowl game tonight.


The tombs are above-ground vaults, not because of the water-table, but simply because that was the custom of the Spanish and French families whose members are buried in the cemetery. It was founded by Spanish royal decree in 1789. Over the years, space needs resulted in the construction of St Louis Cemetery No. 2 and No. 3, located some distance from No. 1.  They are owned and administered by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

DSCN1043 Referred to as the Cities of the Dead, they are composed of house-like individual vaults and the so-called “oven tombs,” which were columbaria or huge vaults with doors opening onto niches for individual burials.  People are amazed at Tolomato’s 1,000 burials – but St Louis has some 100,000 burials in its relatively small space, about 4 times the area of Tolomato. This is because, as at Tolomato, graves and vaults were reused; when the body had become skeletalized, the bones were either removed to a corner or buried under the floor of the tomb, thus making way for the subsequent burials of other deceased family members.

Many of the tombs and fences were in rather rough condition, although signs indicated that a restoration project had been undertaken in the 1980s.  However, a complete job would certainly require a massive endeavor and investment of money, and there are no doubt more pressing needs at the moment.


Interesting people are buried there, including Homer Plessy, who challenged the segregation laws of the South in a case which went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1896. Unfortunately, he lost and the Court upheld the “separate but equal” policy.

There is also the tomb of the so-called “voodoo priestess,” Marie Laveau. Voodoo entered New Orleans with the flood of Haitian refugees from the Haitian rebellion in 1804, by which time NO was part of the United States. Marie Laveau’s tomb is now the centerpiece of the ghost tours of New Orleans – even more omnipresent than the ghost tours of St Augustine.  Tourists leave bizarre trinkets at her tomb and scrawl three x’s on it, presumably for good luck. There was a similar tomb, below, although I wasn’t sure who it belonged to; possibly her daughter, also a voodoo practitioner?


I had a number of questions about St Louis, but, judging by the bizarre stories I heard tumbling from the mouths of the guides of the tours that were tramping through the cemetery, a tour would not be the way to get them answered. But there is a local group called “Save Our Cemeteries,” and tomorrow I hope to be able to do one of their tours of another historic cemetery, Lafayette.  They seem to be similar to the TCPA and promise to provided accurate information!  More on this tomorrow.


Monday, January 3, 2011

New Orleans Cathedral Burials

I’m in New Orleans for a few days, and of course I thought I’d visit their historic cemeteries. But the cemetery I wanted to see is reputedly so dangerous that visitors are encouraged to go only in the company of a tour group, and there is no tour planned until later in the week…so I took a walk through the French Quarter.  And what did I see?


The beautiful St Louis Cathedral.  And in it? 18th and 19th century burials in the Cathedral.

DSCN0983 These reflect Spanish burials from New Orleans’ Spanish period (1765-1803), but I think I also glimpsed some plaques representing French burials. People buried in the churches at that time were usually especially important people, in this case, governors and military officials.  Spain officially stopped burying people under the church floors in about 1788, but obviously the news hadn’t made it to the colonies – or perhaps it was such an established practice that the law was meaningless.

As we all know, there are 3 people buried under the floor in the Cathedral of St Augustine:  Miguel Isnardy, who was the general contractor and died around 1800, and Fr. Pedro Camps and his successor, Fr. Narciso Font, Minorcan priests who were first buried at Tolomato and then reinterred in the Cathedral around the time that the building was completed (1797, although evidently work continued for a few years after its official dedication).