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Unique New Orleans Burial Customs- Society Tombs

Updated on June 11, 2013
The French Mutual Aid Society in Lafayette No. 2 is in a state of disrepair with a small tree growing from its roof.
The French Mutual Aid Society in Lafayette No. 2 is in a state of disrepair with a small tree growing from its roof.
Avenue of old society tombs in Lakelawn Metairie Cemetery
Avenue of old society tombs in Lakelawn Metairie Cemetery

Tombs solved problems for the wealthy and large families

Seventy five years after New Orleans’ founding, moving to an above ground burial system seemed very practical. It solved the water-table issues that made in ground burial so difficult- when you can only dig three feet before hitting water, keeping coffins underground becomes problematic. When you add in tropical storms coming in from the Gulf of Mexico and flooding from the Mississippi River bringing in even more moisture, you have a recipe for disaster.

Tombs were also very practical- once you’d purchased your family’s plot, it could be used dozens of times by generations to come. They saved space, they saved money, and they even saved time, because you could honor all of your ancestors at one time, in one location. People found it a comfort to know that one day their remains would be mingled with those of their loved ones, and caring for the tomb became something that families came together around, even having cemetery picnics on All Saints Day- kids running and playing while the adults repaired and whitewashed the grave.

Christopher Columbus Society- long disbanded.
Christopher Columbus Society- long disbanded.
Many societies are religiously affiliated- either for the benefit of those in their care or for the priests and nuns.
Many societies are religiously affiliated- either for the benefit of those in their care or for the priests and nuns.

Immigrants, the poor and newcomers had to find another solution

But what about those without big families? Being a port city, New Orleans’ population was constantly being refreshed by immigrants and transient workers who often came by themselves and with very little money. Even though most newcomers to the city were young and healthy, they knew they were taking a risk coming to New Orleans-- Yellow Fever outbreaks came along every few years, and work on the docks and the river was lucrative, but dangerous. Sadly, having an idea of what you would do if the worst were to befall you was simply realistic.

Although it saved money in the long run, the initial construction costs could be quite high. Louisiana has no native stone, so most middle-class families chose to plaster over bricks because they couldn’t afford the huge sums to import marble. Unlike typical stone headstones, the plaster needed to be constantly patched and maintained; even if you earned the money to build a tomb, there seemed little point in building a monument that would collapse upon itself when left untended for a few years.

Some societies are tiny, small groups of artisans who band together like these black businessmen. The front of the tomb has broken and fallen away, showing the shelving inside.
Some societies are tiny, small groups of artisans who band together like these black businessmen. The front of the tomb has broken and fallen away, showing the shelving inside.

Forming Fraternal Bonds

Accidents weren’t the only thing to be contended with- loneliness was another big factor for men who had left kith and kin behind. Even as they struck out to new frontiers, people wanted to remember their roots. By the mid 1800s, fraternal organizations were springing up to bring these people of similar backgrounds and interests together and provide them with a sense of community. New Orleans held dozens of Italian and German clubs alone, each one focusing on a particular aspect of their homeland or culture.

Across the country, these clubs functioned in much the same way as a family would, with a meeting space for members to come together, enjoy their own regional cuisine, and support one another. In the New Orleans’ branches they had one added perk, however: as long as you were a member in good standing you could be buried in the club’s mausoleum, locally known as a society tomb.

These in Masonic Cemetery in the fog- all graves here are owned by Masons, many of which are buried by "Lodge." The coping style grave in front is the Hiram Lodge 70, the large white tomb is Alpha Home Lodge 72.
These in Masonic Cemetery in the fog- all graves here are owned by Masons, many of which are buried by "Lodge." The coping style grave in front is the Hiram Lodge 70, the large white tomb is Alpha Home Lodge 72.
Some military units choose to be buried together. This is the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division's tumulous in Lakelawn Metairie Cemetery.
Some military units choose to be buried together. This is the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division's tumulous in Lakelawn Metairie Cemetery.

One for all, and all for one

While most family tombs held between two and four vaults, many society tombs could hold a dozen or more members at a time. Their pooled resources also made them much more elaborate than anything the members could have afforded on their own, and belonging to a society with the most elaborate tomb was considered a status symbol. Marble was imported, sculptures commissioned and fundraisers held- no expense was spared in trying to outdo the other societies in town!

The burial protocols were the same for these larger graves as the family tombs, however. For example, if you were the first person to pass away after the new tomb’s construction, you would be interred in the first vault. Over time, each of the remaining vaults would be taken by other members until the tomb was full, and your remains in the first vault would be collected and placed in a receptacle underneath the vaults where your bones would be with those of your fraternal brothers for eternity.

One drawback of the method was that members did not get to have their names posted on the tomb- all the glory went to the society as a whole, not the individuals. Still, it was seen as so preferable to the alternative of attempting an earthen burial that other groups began to build these society mausoleums for their own members. You can still see church, hospital and even orphanage society tombs around town, and although they are much less elaborate they provided the same service of giving the dead a respectful resting place.

One of the most elaborate society tombs in the city is in St. Louis No. 1- the Italian Mutual Benevolent tomb
One of the most elaborate society tombs in the city is in St. Louis No. 1- the Italian Mutual Benevolent tomb
Although most societies have died off, some, like the Police Mutual Benevolent Association are very active.
Although most societies have died off, some, like the Police Mutual Benevolent Association are very active.

A tradition in decline

Unfortunately, many of the proudest mausoleums have fallen into disrepair, their societies long disbanded. There are occasional reconstructions and renovations, but without a large membership base to share the financial burden, these elaborate tombs are unlikely to make a broad comeback.

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