Jack Muse’s early years as a caretaker with New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries seem almost like the Stone Age to him now.
Although burial methods have remained pretty much the same over his 40 years in the profession – the manual digging of earth in tight spaces, the sealing of above-ground tombs with brick and mortar – the caretaker’s toolbox has expanded to include gas-powered weed eaters, leaf blowers and riding lawnmowers.
“When I started in 1976, we used machetes to cut the weeds down,” recalled Muse, who rose over the years to his current position as superintendent of St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 on Esplanade Avenue.
Muse, the Cemeteries Office’s most senior employee, was reflecting on changes at the city’s Catholic burial grounds in anticipation of an office milestone: June 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the day Archbishop Philip Hannan created the Cemeteries Office.
In celebration, Archbishop Gregory Aymond will lead a golden anniversary prayer service June 23 at 9:30 a.m. at St. Louis No. 3. The service, which is open to the public, will include a blessing of the cemetery’s new St. Teresa Garden Mausoleum of 110 double crypts.
“On June 28, 1966, Archbishop Hannan signed the letter of incorporation for the archdiocesan Cemeteries Office and put it in charge of 12 cemeteries in the city,” said Sherri Peppo, the office’s executive director since 2013. “Before then, the cemeteries were individually operated by parish churches.”
The 12 cemeteries in that original charter were St. Joseph Nos. 1 and 2 on Washington Avenue; St. Louis No. 1 (Basin Street); No. 2 (Claiborne Avenue); and No. 3 (Esplanade Avenue); St. Patrick No. 1 (Canal Street) and Nos. 2 and 3 (City Park Avenue); St. Roch Nos. 1 and 2 on St. Roch Avenue; and St. Vincent de Paul Nos. 1 and 2 on Soniat Street.
In 1970, a 13th cemetery was added to the office’s purview: St. Charles Cemetery, located on Paul Maillard Road in Luling.
In all, they total some 107 acres of sacred ground, much of it studded with more-than-a-century-old, above-ground vaults that are counted among New Orleans’ most iconic images.
With age comes the inevitable double-edged sword of upkeep.
Technically, families who own a given tomb are responsible for its maintenance. When families die out, the Cemeteries Office is left with the burden of caring for those tombs.
To address the condition of abandoned tombs in the greatest state of disrepair, the Cemeteries Office launched the Friends of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries last month. For a minimum annual donation of $25, members will be updated on all office happenings and see their contributions go into a fund earmarked for the restoration of the city’s most neglected historic tombs.
The Friends’ initial restoration efforts will focus on the Catholic cemetery with the largest number of deteriorated tombs: St. Louis No. 2, an 1823-built burial site that sprawls over three city blocks.
“I don’t think people understand just how expensive it is to maintain historic cemeteries,” Peppo said. “While our interment fees do predominantly cover labor costs, insurance and maintenance associated with (non-abandoned tombs), they do not cover the cost of maintaining all the abandoned tombs in our historic cemeteries,” she said.
“If we do have current, up-to-date owners of a tomb, then we expect them to repair their own property. It is their responsibility,” Peppo added. “But I feel like we have a moral obligation to maintain the tombs that are truly abandoned and not let the cemetery crumble and fall apart.”
To illustrate how quickly costs can mount, Peppo noted how the 2014 overhaul of St. Louis No. 1’s walled perimeter cost $500,000 – a project that involved drilling holes through the wall’s brick mortar joints, flushing out deteriorated mortar, pumping in fresh mortar and re-caulking.
Peppo said the tomb restoration fund spearheaded by the new Friends group will be augmented by potential grants as well as income generated from daytime tours of St. Louis No. 1, the city’s oldest cemetery, dating from 1789. The Cemeteries Office closed St. Louis No. 1 to the general public – and began charging tour companies for access – in March 2015 in response to growing vandalism, theft and litter. Peppo said a restructured fee schedule that went into effect three months ago – based on every visitor to St. Louis No. 1 – is already generating funds for tomb restoration. In March 2016 alone, those visitors totaled 22,000 people.
In another endeavor targeting historic tomb restoration, the Cemeteries Office is allowing the non-profit Save Our Cemeteries group to conduct monthly dusk tours of St. Louis No. 1 and directing proceeds to the preservation of tombs in that cemetery.
Space still available
The notion that the city’s historic cemeteries are “full” is another myth Peppo and her staff must continually dispel.
In addition to the new St. Teresa Garden Mausoleum at St. Louis No. 3, three new concrete, above-ground tombs recently were completed at St. Patrick No. 3; and two tombs and one “coping” (a style of burial in which a casket is buried underground and marked with a low-lying structure) were added to St. Vincent No. 1, Peppo said.
“A lot of people think that we’re totally sold out, but we still have property available,” she said. “We have land available to build tombs on; we have land available to build mausoleums; we have available space in (existing) mausoleums and tombs,” she said, noting that in the coming fiscal year, her office will begin working with professional cemetery architects on a master plan to assess space at the city’s Catholic cemeteries and its potential for development as interment sites.
“We will look at what will best serve our Catholic cemeteries over the next 15 to 20 years and get the best space available for those projects,” Peppo said.
Also expanding burial options was last year’s completion of the Serenity Garden Columbarium in St. Louis No. 3, offering 112 niches for the placement of cremated human remains. The structure has the distinction of being the first free-standing columbarium to be erected in a New Orleans Catholic cemetery and points to the growing acceptance of cremation among locals.
“Back when I started (at the Cemeteries Office) 27 years ago, cremation was not something that was talked about as often. Even though it had already been approved by the code of canon law, we did not receive a lot of cremated human remains to be interred,” Peppo said. “We have seen a shift over the last 10 years.”
Busy office reaches out
Other recent or upcoming endeavors of the Cemeteries Office include:
• Publication of the “Family Records Guide,” a complimentary booklet that enables individuals to place their funeral, burial, financial and other post-mortem information in one location so their survivors do not have to speculate about the wishes of the deceased.
• A push to expose more teens and young adults to the cemeteries during “non-tragic” times through the expansion of volunteer opportunities. For example, in April, Boy Scouts from St. Christopher Parish built and installed birdhouses at St. Patrick No. 3; and this month, Loyola alumni went to St. Patrick to do general cleanup and weeding.
• A newly launched Memorial Tree program invites families and friends of the deceased to make a $400 donation for the planting of either a crape myrtle or saucer magnolia in their loved one’s honor at St. Patrick Nos. 1, 2 and 3; St. Louis No. 3; and St. Vincent No. 1. An additional $100 purchases a memorial plaque.
• The office’s interment database soon will be accessible on the website – www.NolaCatholicCemeteries.org – enabling users to search for a grave by name. Another feature, still in the design phase, will help users find their grave of interest on a cemetery map.
• In response to the metro area’s growing population of Latino-Americans, the Cemeteries Office hired a Spanish-speaking staff member. Peppo’s staff of 26 includes caretakers responsible for burials, grass-cutting and light cleaning; a repair crew whose duties include pressure washing painting and caulking; and others who conduct interment sales, inscription orders, sell monuments and flowers and research titles for families.
The office is headquartered at 1000 Howard Ave., Suite 500. For more information, call 596-3050 or visit www.NolaCatholicCemeteries.org.