Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The art of dying

This time of year — as the leaves change and warm summer days conclude heading toward that creepy last day of October — we think about death. In New Orleans, death is present all year long.

It’s those cemeteries, little “cities of the dead,” that exists throughout town. The ghost and voodoo tours. The tourists — and a few locals — who love to dress goth thinking vampires lurk around every corner.

But still, October takes the cake, even for New Orleans.  

For instance, the Gallier Historic House Museum at 1132 Royal St. in the French Quarter will offer specialized tours that interpret post funeral habits of the 19th century beginning Thursday, Sept 29. Tours are offered weekdays (closed Wednesdays) at 10 and 11 a.m., noon, 1 and 2 p.m. and Saturdays (closed Sundays) at noon, 1, 2 and 3 p.m.

The house was owned by James Gallier Sr. and his second wife, both of whom drowned at sea aboard the S.S. Evening Star as they traveled home to New Orleans from New York through a late-season hurricane off the coast of Georgia. The household went into mourning that October in 1866 and the museum will commemorate their deaths in the upcoming days.

New Orleans historian Sally Asher helped construct a tour that includes information about the Evening Star, the shipwreck and the Galliers’ deaths, research that was part of her two recently published books, “Hope & New Orleans: A History of Crescent City Street Names” (2014) and “Stories from the St. Louis Cemeteries” (2015). 
During the Victorian era, almost every aspect of everyday life, from clothes to china, were changed to reflect the family’s grief. The front entry of the home was swathed in black crepe, as were mirrors and the deceased’s portrait (see photo at left). Clocks were stopped at the hour of death, and even children’s toys reflected the solemn mood. Displays of distinctive funeral attire and many Victorian mourning articles (see photo above right) will provide visitors to the Gallier House with an uncommon look into the past.

As a special event, Historian John Magill will lecture on the “Artistry of Death: The Cult of Mourning in the Nineteenth-Century South” at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26. Using illustrations and artifacts, Magill will offer insight on the elaborate tombs, death notices, decorative arts, clothing and jewelry that protocol and fashion dictated in the era of the Galliers’ misfortune. The lecture is free and open to the public. For reservations and more information, email For admission prices, group tour appointments and to purchase tickets in advance, visit

Still thinking about those Cities of the Dead? You’d be right to visit cemeteries in New Orleans for they are unique in many ways. These above-ground tombs were built to resist the city's high water table but for many, the tradition of elaborate grave sites remain. Plus, there’s an awesome organization, Save Our Cemeteries, dedicated to preserving these miniature cities and they offer daily tours.

In October, Save Our Cemeteries and Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat Fan Club (ARVLFC) team up to raise money for a restoration of the Karstendiek Family tomb in historic Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The Karstendiek Family tomb is also known as the “Vampire Lestat Tomb” because Rice drew from the tomb’s unique attributes and its striking resemblance to the tomb featured in the movie adaptation of “Interview with the Vampire.” (You can view the tomb here.) According to the Save Our Cemeteries website, the Karstendiek Family tomb is one of only 16 cast-iron tombs in Orleans Parish.

It’s also in need of repairs, so both groups will offer a party to raise funds beginning at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 27. There will be a Second Line led by Skinz N Bonez into the cemetery, followed by a “twilight tour” of the cemetery where light refreshments and red wine will be served. Tickets are $50 per person (must be at least 21 years old to attend) and may be purchased here.

Photos of Gallier House submitted by Deveney Communication.

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a food and travel writer living in South Louisiana. She is also the author of several Louisiana romances under the pen name of Cherie Claire and 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

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