Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Little cemetery houses a grave affair in Louisiana

Credit: Stacey Scarce
            In South Louisiana, even the dead want to come in from the rain and cold.             
            There are two cemeteries that contain grave houses, structures that cover the graves of South Louisiana residents. At the Talbert-Pierson Cemetery near Pitkin, a row of graves are sheltered by identical houses. In Mermentau Cove, the Istre Cemetery contains grave houses that include windows and locks on the doors.
            Grave houses, although rare and usually found in older cemeteries, were simply structures designed to protect a gravesite or several graves from the elements. According to the historical marker at the circa-1889 Talbert-Pierson Cemetery, “the origins of grave houses are uncertain — some tracing the beginnings to European or Native American roots. Other sources simply attribute the custom to a form of protecting the graves before cemeteries were commonly fenced. Grave houses were a part of the Upland South tradition: this custom also included decorating the graves with shells.”
Istre Cemetery
            The houses had to be built before sunset on the day of the person’s burial, the marker claims. Since there was additional cost involved in creating both a grave and a house, the grave houses were reserved for important members of a family or community. The 15 grave houses at Talbert-Pierson were built from hand-cut wooden pickets with gabled roofs, the construction dating between 1889 to 1949.
            The Talbert-Pierson Cemetery contains graves of the Talbert and Pierson families who first came into this area of Louisiana known as “No Man’s Land” in the 19th century. Vernon Parish and the region along the Sabine River that borders with Texas was once a land of dispute between the Louisiana Territory belonging to the Americans and the Spanish in Texas. Pioneers of this “Neutral Ground,” many from the Upland South, attempted farms while criminals, runaway slaves and military deserters were attracted to the lawless country.
Istre Cemetery
            Meanwhile, over at the Istre Cemetery in Mermentau Cove, down in deep Cajun Country, “Petite Maisons” cover the graves of Cajun settlers. These cypress structures resemble homes that live people use — only on a miniature scale. The houses the size of a child’s playhouse one might see in a backyard often include windows, doors and working locks and shingled roofs. Peek inside and you’ll see the graves.
            Istre Cemetery is one of the last remaining examples of this unique custom; there used to be grave houses all over Cajun Country. The cemetery began in 1886 and was home to nearly 40 of these petite maisons, but today only three remain. South Louisiana filmmakers Zach and Jeremy Broussard examine these last remaining houses and the culture surrounding them in their documentary, “Little Houses.” Proceeds help preserve the remaining structures.
            Broussard has also written a book about the phenomenon.
            "There are theories that they were purely practical, to protect the graves from animals or the elements,” Broussard said in a 2013 interview with WVUE TV in New Orleans. “And there are theories that they were meant as shrines."
Talbert-Pierson Credit: Stacey Scarce


Cheré Coen is an award-winning travel writer specializing in the Deep South. She is also the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” “Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at cherecoen@gmail.com.

1 comment: