New Orleans' Cities of the Dead

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Commentator Karla Holloway reflects on New Orleans' traditional burial rituals and tombs built above the ground to keep caskets out of the water-saturated soil. Holloway is a professor of English at Duke University and the author of Passed On: African-American Mourning Stories.

ED GORDON, host:

Distinctive funeral rituals are a mark of New Orleans culture. Commentator Karla Holloway ponders this, in light of the city's present crisis.


`When the Negro dies,' Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in "Democracy in America," `his bones are cast aside and the distinction of conditions prevail even in the equality of death. Thus, a Negro is free but he can share neither the rights, not the pleasures, not the labor, nor the afflictions, nor the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared to be, and he cannot meet him upon fair terms in life or in death.'

De Tocqueville wrote 175 years ago but the scenes of death and dying in New Orleans recall with ironic vitality his insight into the racial politics embedded even today in our nation. New Orleans is a city where privilege, respect, ceremony and attention may not come during one's lifetimes, but they are surely and certainly present at one's death. Conferred with distinction, and acknowledgment of a tradition of lavishly attentive burial, that contradicted the poverty of so many black lives.

The traditions of its legendary jazz funerals are, perhaps, most familiar, but the dead did not need these elaborate rituals for their going-homes, just the stark presence of white gloves on a funeral director's hands, just the mournful melodies of the occasioned hymns haunting the narrow city streets, just the sure ceremony of a company of mourners to join a tearful family on its trek to a grave site, perhaps, in one of the legendary cities of the dead, where the remains of these ceremonies last forever, in flowers tucked into crumbling stone tombs, and names and more etched into aged granite markers.

Like this week, as those charged with recovering the dead in New Orleans managed their labors, the only gloves are rubberized protections from the decay, the only companies, those charged with tagging the bodies, or those who will take DNA samples for future identification or those who will arrange the dead into lines in some distant warehouse of a morgue where even relatives are kept away while these lonesome laborers contradict the traditions and passion of this city. These many thousands gone seem even more acute in the city where the dead and the traditions of their ceremonies are revered and noticed and practiced to a polished profession.

The racial politics of these dead, in their disarray, in the inattention to their plight, in the distinctions that emerge between white and black make the comparisons as stark as they were when de Tocqueville roamed America's early regions. The racial politics absolutely shape a goodly part of the pain and anguish and, indeed, the pathetic truths in this loss. These dead had no fair terms in these last days. When those who left had both ways and means, and those who were left had neither.

As we locate and then bury the dead from the city where the craft of burial has been lovingly practiced and deeply cherished, we must honor them at least with our memories of how this city's traditions would direct our mourning. But this tragedy of race and place calls as well for a truth-telling obituary, one that testifies and gives evidence, and one that clarifies our responsibilities to acknowledge what has happened in these days, in that city of the dead.

GORDON: Karla Holloway is the author of "Passed On: African American Mourning Stories."

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