Thursday, April 16, 2015

a (legal) stroll through a closed cemetery in New Orleans

“The most dangerous flower is one that grows on a grave.”

Jarod Kintz

Odd Fellows Rest
5055 Canal Street, New Orleans

The name Odd Fellows refers to a number of friendly societies and fraternal organizations. It also refers to a number of Lodges with histories dating back to the 18th century who were set up to protect and care for their members and communities at a time when there was no welfare state, trade unions or National Health Service. The aim was (and still is) to provide help to members and communities when they need it.

Located in New Orleans, Odd Fellows Rest is located on Canal Street near numerous other “Cities of the Dead”.

The thing about this cemetery that makes it so special is that due to vandalism, it is not open to the public. Some of the members of our American Culture Association Cemeteries and Gravemarkers  group estimated that the cemetery hadn’t been opened since the 1970s. When we met the cemetery caretaker, Michael, he said that the cemetery has been closed since WWII.

The land for Odd Fellows Rest was purchased in 1847 by the Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The property, adjoining St. Patrick Cemetery No. 2 at the intersection of Canal Street and Metairie Road (now City Park Avenue), was purchased for $700 and later enlarged by donations of land from benefactors and the Firemen’s Charitable Association.

In 1849, the new cemetery was dedicated with a large ceremony and a grand procession which bore the cemeteries first 16 remains of former Odd Fellows members, relocated from other cemeteries.

Michael said that this cemetery never had perpetual care. He also noted that it is a misconception that New Orleans includes so many above ground burials in elaborate stone crypts and mausoleums due to concerns that the area is built on a swamp. Odd Fellows Rest, along with the other cemeteries in the vicinity, is situated above the flood plain. The above ground burials happened to be more popular during the heyday of these cemeteries.

Nature takes back what man has made
The Odd Fellows organization was devastated by the Civil War. After the war, membership decreased by 60% and simply never recovered. That being noted, there is one last living Odd Fellow who is in his 80s. He’s the last living by at least 50 years!!!

In the 1970s, the cemetery was condemned with an estimate of 1 million dollars to relocate the remains and demolish the cemetery. Fortunately, the Highway Administration saved the cemetery. Yep, you read that correctly. The plans for the highway would have run right through the cemetery but their plans changed and because of that the government did not want to *waste* their money demolishing a cemetery.

In the early 1980s, a local organization Save Our Cemeteries repaired a section of the Odd Fellows wall vaults. You can see in some of my pictures that their current conditions are pretty bad.

Howard Association
Odd Fellows Rest contains several notable tombs and monuments. One is for the Howard Association, a group composed of young men whose mission was to provide emergency aid during the yellow fever epidemic. The tomb features an intricate bas-relief of the organization’s founder, John Howard.

Morrison Marker
It’s always nice to have a “guide” (bless his heart, Michael was supposed to open the gate for our group but he played tour guide as well!) who knows the stories behind the markers. He shared that Morrison had four children die from yellow fever.

Fairchild tomb
The cast iron gates surrounding the cemetery bear symbols of fraternity tied to the Odd Fellows, like the widow and her children, the beehive, the all-seeing eyes of Diety, the world, the cornucopia, the Order’s initials, the five-pointed stars, and the Bible. Sadly, many of these symbols have been stolen by vandals. There is some amazing artwork but unless something is done, it will be destroyed by nature. So much of this cemetery has already been lost.

Fairchild Tomb

Michael also shared that 85% of the cemetery is made up of orphaned tombs. There are 25 individual tombs maintained by families. The cemetery is open on All Saints Day and by request for family members.

There was practically no record keeping and the original burial records are lost although the records can be somewhat put back together with microfilm copies. 

Michael holding three links that someone found in the cemetery

Often used by the Freemasons and Independent Order of Odd Fellows. It symbolizes human industry, faith, education, and domestic virtues.

FLT in Chain Links   
A symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization. Stands for Friendship, Love, and Truth.

Hand Holding Heart  

The hand holding a heart is a symbol used by the I.O.O.F (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) and Masons, both fraternal organizations. It symbolizes charity.

I took many more pictures since this isn't a cemetery that others get to see very often. I'll probably upload as many as possible to Find a Grave  just so others have access.
There's amazing detail in this artwork but this tomb is slowly being destroyed. How long before this is broken?

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