New Orleans is known worldwide for its above-ground cemeteries. Usually visitors are steered to St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 while touring the French Quarter, or to Lafayette Number 1 while touring the Garden District. For folks into genealogy, along with those who want to see the stories of families told out over generations on tombstones, head to the end of Canal Street, to “the cemeteries.”
When you get off the Canal Streetcar, you’re standing at the apex of a triangle of three cemeteries. To the left is Cypress Grove, to the right, Odd Fellows’ Rest, and across City Park Avenue from the streetcar terminal is Greenwood Cemetery. Greenwood and Cypress Grove are two of the oldest cemeteries in the city. They were both built by the Firemen’s Charitable and Benevolent Association. Many benevolent societies in New Orleans pooled the financial resources of their members to build “society vaults” in the city’s established cemeteries; the FCBA built two full cemeteries. At the time the FCBA was founded in 1834, firefighting was a job for volunteers. It was just as dangerous a gig then as it is now, and firefighters tragically lost their lives all too early. Immortal young people don’t often pause to consider buying into a benevolent society until they’re older, so these firefighters’ families were often caught without the means to bury their loved ones. FCBA helped with that. By building entire cemeteries, they could sell plots for graves and tombs to those with means, generating the revenue needed to bury the heroes.
As you approach Greenwood from the streetcar, your eyes are drawn immediately to the Firemen’s Monument. The monument was commissioned by the FCBA to mark their 50th anniversary. The six-foot statue of a volunteer fireman, the centerpiece of the monument, was sculpted by Alexander Doyle. Doyle’s work in New Orleans also includes statues for the Army of Tennessee (Louisiana Division) and the Washington Artillery Cenotaph (both in Metairie Cemetery), and the statue of Margaret Haughery on Camp Street.
To the right of the Firemen’s Monument is a large, green mound topped by a bronze statue of an elk. This is the tumulus of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Lodge 30. It was built in 1912. A “tumulus” is a mausoleum where the burial vaults are covered by an earthen mound.
The other large memorial at the front of Greenwood Cemetery is the Confederate Monument. It was the first Confederate memorial to be dedicated in the city in 1874 (the U.S. Government had already constructed the Chalmette Cemetery, so that was the first Civil War memorial in the area). The Ladies Benevolent Association of Louisiana took up the cause of creating a burial place for Confederate troops originally buried in Chalmette Cemetery, alongside soldiers from the Union. The ladies re-interred the remains of those soldiers and others, about 600 altogether. The tumulus is a low mound, topped with a statue of a Confederate infantryman. He stands, resting on his rifle, atop an ornate marble pedestal. That pedestal includes four busts of Confederate generals: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston and Leonidas Polk. (An equestrian statue of Johnston stands atop a tumulus in Metairie Cemetery, and is visible from I-10 as one drives into the city from the West.)
After the first row of monuments, Greenwood still has a number of interesting tombs, graves, and vaults. One of those is Police Mutual Benevolent Association, a burial society formed by and for families of members of the New Orleans Police Department. Close by that tomb is one for employees of the D. H. Holmes department store.
Another of the more interesting tombs is that of the Pelton family. Most tombs in New Orleans are constructed of brick-and-mortar, then covered with plaster and whitewashed. Families with more financial means might then encase the vaults with stone, such as granite or marble. The Pelton family constructed a metal tomb, which was then painted silver, to prevent rust. This tomb is built on two plots. Greenwood’s plot size is small compared to many cemeteries. This made it more affordable for families to buy into the cemetery. The typical New Orleans burial vault is called a “double,” because it contains two vaults, one on top the other. The laws governing above ground burials state that you have to wait a year and a day before re-using a vault in a tomb, so a “double” gives a family the option of burying a second loved one in that time period, should need arise.
The sheer size of Greenwood Cemetery is hard to appreciate by just walking in the front. This aerial view from 1967 shows just how far back from City Park Avenue the cemetery extends. In addition to all these tombs, FCBA have constructed a large mausoleum in the back corner of Greenwood, which enables them to extend their service to the city for generations to come.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.