This story appeared in the October issue of PRC’s Preservation in Print magazine. Interested in getting more preservation stories like this delivered to your door nine times a year? Become a member of the PRC for a subscription!
When it comes to vast, historic cemeteries filled with celebrity resting places, Paris has Père Lachaise, Hollywood has Forest Lawn and New Orleans has Metairie Cemetery.
Spread over 127 acres that used to contain a racetrack, Metairie Cemetery holds the graves of nine governors, 12 New Orleans mayors and six state Supreme Court justices, along with — among many others — Tom Benson, the Saints’ former owner; Al Copeland, the fried-chicken magnate; P.B.S. Pinchback, Louisiana’s only Black governor; Louis Prima, the madcap musician; Carlos Marcello, the rackets boss; and Josie Arlington, the best-known Storyville madam. The cemetery dates to 1872 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The cemetery’s residents, estimated to number about 120,000, repose in tombs whose styles range from the understated to the grandiose. While many, especially in the newer sections, are straightforward pieces that look like small, solidly built stone structures, there is no shortage of replicas of Greek temples, as well as a pyramid and a massive sarcophagus of white marble looming over Metairie Road that was modeled after one in a Florentine basilica. Near the latter tomb are two more distinctive sites: an obelisk with four female figures at its base, and a mound — technically known as a tumulus — containing the remains of the soldiers of the Louisiana Division of the Army of Tennessee, including Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, the New Orleanian who led the attack on Fort Sumter that touched off the Civil War.
“I tell people that there’s more history in these 127 acres than anyplace else in the New Orleans region,” said Gerard L. “Jerry” Schoen III, a funeral director who also is community outreach director for Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home.
Schoen, 65, has worked there for 42 years. An enthusiastic cemetery tour guide, he can tell you where people are buried and, in one case, where someone isn’t. That individual is Arlington, whose first resting place depicts a statue of a young woman bearing a wreath with a hand on a bronze door. Contrary to urban myth, the woman does not represent Arlington but is based on a statue of a woman in a German graveyard, according to author Henri A. Gandolfo’s history of the cemetery.
Arlington died in 1914. Because of her notoriety, and because the red-granite tomb reflected a flashing light from a nearby toll barrier along the New Basin Shell Road, her tomb became a tourist magnet until the light was removed, Gandolfo wrote.
Arlington’s body was moved, too, because financial difficulties forced her family to sell the tomb and move her body to a vault whose location is an official secret that Schoen does not disclose. Her former resting place, however, still draws visitors.
Metairie Cemetery dates to 1872 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Photos by Charles E. Leche.
Besides being a guide and de facto historian, Schoen is the arbiter of what is allowed and what is strictly forbidden at the cemetery, saying that he has had to say no to voodoo ceremonies, Goth weddings and tarot-card readings. No pet burials are allowed, but several sites feature sculptures of pets, including Francis Masich’s devoted dog, which, Gandolfo wrote, followed Masich’s coffin to the tomb and refused to leave. In a burst of artistic license, the sculptor included a tear falling from the dog’s left eye. (Though Metairie Cemetery does not allow pet burials, the complex containing the cemetery includes Heaven’s Pets, where pets can be cremated and their ashes can be stored.)
Metairie Cemetery, which is owned by Service Corporation International, was established in 1872. By that time, embalming had become part of preparing a body for burial. Nevertheless, Schoen said, some people feared being buried alive, even though that would be impossible because embalming removes blood and other fluids.
To appease those who feared the remote possibility of waking up inside a coffin, Schoen said, some people asked to be buried holding a rope connected to a bell that the undead person could tug to alert a caretaker. (Schoen suggested that this could be an origin of the term “dead ringer.”)
One such individual was Elizabeth Hale Bernau, who died in 1891. Her tomb is topped off by a cupola with a bell attached to a rope that was extended through a hole in the top of her mahogany casket and put in her hand, just in case she might wake up, Schoen said
The rope, which became frayed, has been removed, Gandolfo wrote, but for years, Bernau’s niece used to toll the bell in memory of her aunt.
One of the cemetery’s more imposing tombs is that of William G. Helis Sr., who came to the United States as an impoverished Greek immigrant and made a fortune in the oil business. But he never forgot his native land. Helis’ granite tomb, modeled after the Temple of Nike atop the Acropolis in Athens, not only features his name in Greek on the back of the tomb but also carries out his wish that he be buried on Greek soil. To accomplish that, Schoen said, Helis had soil imported from Tropaia, his hometown, and spread on the tract before his mausoleum was built.
Helis died in 1950. In Gandolfo’s book, Metairie Cemetery: An Historical Memoir, he wrote that the 1950s marked the onset of a trend toward less distinctive tombs, a casualty of rising costs.
“People don’t build ornate structures anymore because they’re so expensive,” said Gil Bonnafons, the cemetery’s director of memorial construction. “It’s a labor-intensive proposition. Generally, they’ll go with a stock design, or, if it’s a walk-in (tomb), they’ll go with a classic design, but they won’t dwell on its ornateness. They’ll leave that out because it gets to be terribly expensive.”
A marble mausoleum, with three crypts on either side of the entrance, can cost about $800,000, Bonnafons said, but something grander can cost up to $5 million.
Regardless of the price, Schoen said that the cemetery takes care of upkeep when tomb and mausoleum owners pay for perpetual care, which amounts to a percentage of the cost of the individual tract. Even though standardization may have become an attractive option, Bonnafons said that some customers ask for amenities such as a patio in the back or a certain type of cross or statue.
“We can always accommodate them,” said Bonnafons, who has been working at the cemetery upwards of 40 years.
But there are times when he does have to draw the line. “Someone asked me not to put a marble crypt front on their walk-in mausoleum because they wanted to get out at night and not have a slab of marble in their way,” said Bonnafons, calling it “probably the most outrageous thing I’ve been asked to do out of all the tombs I’ve built.”
He turned it down. “I said, ‘We can’t do that,’” Bonnafons said. “‘You’ll have to find a way out on your own.’”