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The History of Charity Hospital Cemetery and Hurricane Katrina Memorial

Updated on January 21, 2016
Charity Hospital Cemetery & Hurricane Katrina Memorial, or, "How 100,000 graves nearly became a bus stop
Charity Hospital Cemetery & Hurricane Katrina Memorial, or, "How 100,000 graves nearly became a bus stop

Hours and Location

Location: 5050 Canal Street

Hours: Typically 9-4 Monday through Saturday

Maintained by: State Department of Health and Hospitals ph: 504-568-3201

The cemetery gate, looking out onto the streetcar tracks of Canal Street.
The cemetery gate, looking out onto the streetcar tracks of Canal Street.

The cemetery was opened by Charity hospital in 1848 and you could make the case that it was the "true" potter's field in the city. If you were buried in Holt, after all, someone had retrieved your body and tended to it. If a body was unclaimed, penniless or potentially ridden with contagion, they came to Charity to be buried in unmarked graves. In years of plague when the sextons couldn't keep up they would dig mass grave pits for the victims.

Estimates of how many souls were buried here range between 100,000 and 150,000.

Now it's a peaceful meadow, but while it was active it was a brown muddy mess, never visited by the general public. When the hospital built a crematorium the cemetery fell into disuse, eventually being chained closed with barbed wire atop the gates to further discourage the curious.

Inside, grass had been planted but it was pocked with gouges where dogs had gone digging for bones. There were only two monuments in the entire cemetery: a plain metal cross next to a crepe myrtle tree and, added in 1989, a thank you from the medical alumni to those who had donated their bodies.

And there it sat, until a city planner thought up a "more productive" use for the land in 2002.

The marker to the dead here. The last line reads "Charity Hospital Cemetery is one of the most historically significant yet least known among New Orleans famous "Cities of the Dead.""
The marker to the dead here. The last line reads "Charity Hospital Cemetery is one of the most historically significant yet least known among New Orleans famous "Cities of the Dead.""

Re-purpose the graveyard?

Charity's near the corner of Canal and City Park Ave- the streetcar route ends and several bus routes intersect, but there are several lanes of automobile traffic too. It was a dangerous situation where people had to dodge traffic to get to their transport, so wouldn't it be better, they said, to clear that land and make it a ginormous bus stop?

The idea went over like a lead balloon. Thousands of families had ancestors buried there, and even if they didn't have a grave to visit, they didn't want it disturbed. Historians and preservationists were horrified. How on earth were you going to locate and move the remains when they were buried several levels deep? The authorities pushed, and studies were conducted to determine the viability of locating and moving the bodies.

Charity's gates on a foggy morning.
Charity's gates on a foggy morning.

Charity becomes the focus of ghost lore...

Scientists and archaeologists began their work, blue tarps hung on the fences to keep gawkers away. People couldn't see what was happening inside the cemetery, but all around they started seeing the spirits of the disturbed dead: people reported shadowy shapes in hospital gowns wandering out, through the gates and into Canal Street's traffic, real enough to make drivers slam on their brakes. At night shouts and moans were heard throughout the graveyard.

A local psychic held a séance outside the gates to try to ascertain how the cemetery's occupants felt about the proposal- to no one's great surprise the dead weren't thrilled about it. In fact, they were outright furious and promised misery to anyone foolish enough to patronize public transport.

Ultimately, due to both cost and pushback, the city had to drop the idea of reusing the cemetery. The site was later cleaned and reopened as a memorial for the victims of Hurricane Katrina complete with pathways forming the bands of a storm complete and an eye in the center. The memorial takes up about half of the grounds with the rear of the cemetery undisturbed.

 tombs Hurricane Katrina's unidentified dead from 2005
tombs Hurricane Katrina's unidentified dead from 2005
Hurricane Katrina monument
Hurricane Katrina monument

Recent changes

For the first time in its 160 year history Charity now has several tombs, though they are still nameless, holding the remains of unidentified hurricane victims. Several slabs were also placed to provide some basic information about the cemetery, although the one donated by the alumni was removed and leans against the outer wall.

There is now also a cement path in the shape of a spinning hurricane. In the center is a large marble slab explaining what happened before, during and after the storm, flanked by benches. Unfortunately you can't really get the scope of the improvements from the ground but you can see it on the monument (photo to the right).

Perhaps the previous tenants didn't mind these additions as there were no additional reports of wandering angry and confused ghosts this time around.

A marker5050 canal st, new orleans -
5050 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119, USA
get directions

Charity Hospital Cemetery at the very end of Canal Street.

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