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Tricentennial Reading List (New Orleans Cemeteries) with Sally Asher

  •  Stories from the St. Louis Cemeteries of New Orleans, by Sally Asher
  • Vol. 2 Friends of the Cabildo New Orleans Architecture series: Cemeteries.
  • Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History, by Peter Dedek
  • Elysium, A Gathering of Souls, New Orleans Cemeteries, by Sandra Russell Clark
  • New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead, by Robert Florence, photographs by Mason Florence
  • Lagniappe: Getting Off at Elysian Fields: Obituaries from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, by John Pope


Susan Larson: Talk a little bit about the special role cemeteries play in New Orleans life.

Sally Asher: Cemeteries are so ingrained in New Orleans life whether it comes from traditions and celebrations or art. You start back with All Saints Day which was a very unique New Orleans tradition, where on November 1st people would come in and clean the graves and honor the deceased, but I think a lot of people don't know was that it was basically a party. They would shut down businesses, saloons would be bustling, because that was primarily a woman's job to go in and clean the tombs.

['Dig my Grave with a Silver Spade' by Tom Dutson and Robert Pete Williams ]

Susan: I think our cemeteries inspire photographers. One of the very best I found is Elysium: A Gathering of Souls, New Orleans Cemeteries, by Sandra Russell Clark.

Sally: Yes, there's a great introduction by Patricia Brady who is one of my favorite writers. That's an example of a book that's just breathtaking. It's beautiful. One of my favorite photos in the book is The Dante tomb that's in St. Louis Cemetery Number three. It had a bronze bust of Dante on top of its tomb for about 115 years, until Hurricane Katrina came along, and the photographer in the book just captured this beautiful photograph of something that's no longer there.

I think people take it for granted that these cemeteries and these works of art will exist, but there's different cemeteries that I document every year and you can notice how things change and fall away. Those are some absolutely just haunting breathtakingly beautiful photos.

Susan: It's such a meditative book.

Sally: It's a memento mori, we all have to face that. You just have to take a deep breath and just sit and really gaze into those photos. It's very relaxing.

['Dance with Death' by Hurray for the Riff Raff]

Susan: You spent a lot of time in St. Louis cemeteries writing your book and you began to feel a real kinship with the inhabitants of that space.

Sally: The cemeteries are basically outdoor museums, and they're so gorgeous, and they're so beautiful. People become awed by these giant statues and tombs and fail to realize that they are people and their stories. There are a lot of tombs that go unappreciated or missed because they might not have the most glamorous tomb, but they've definitely have a story to tell in their own special history and have made a mark on New Orleans. I really wanted to focus on educating people about those gorgeous beautiful tombs as well as the ones that might not have the spotlight on them as much.

Susan: I think for great lagniappe we should add Getting Off at Elysian Fields: Obituaries from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, by John Pope.

Sally: Well, that's one of those examples, tying back in where you have your rock stars like Marie Laveau and et cetera and other people that everyone knows, and then you kind of had the untold story. The corner grocer, the Mardi Gras Indian, someone who might have had a really interesting prohibition story or World War II story of what they did and how they fought and John Pope just brings those to life.

Susan: I know. He brings them to life.

Sally: He brings them to life, and his book is a nice mix of local celebrities. New Orleanians would know and people that might be your neighbor that you have no idea their personal story, very special stories of life.

Susan: Well, all these cemetery stories are stories of lives.

['Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)' by Johnny Cash]

Susan: We've been talking with Sally Asher about books about New Orleans cemeteries for the Reading Life, Tricentennial Reading project. The Reading Life, Tricentennial Reading List is sponsored by the Helis Foundation, the John Burton Harter Trust, and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. For the evergrowing Tricentennial Reading List and other episodes check out wwno.org.

The Reading Life in 2010, Susan Larson was the book editor for The New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1988-2009. She has served on the boards of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival and the New Orleans Public Library. She is the founder of the New Orleans chapter of the Women's National Book Association, which presents the annual Diana Pinckley Prizes for Crime Fiction.. In 2007, she received the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities lifetime achievement award for her contributions to the literary community. She is also the author of The Booklover's Guide to New Orleans. If you run into her in a local bookstore or library, she'll be happy to suggest something you should read. She thinks New Orleans is the best literary town in the world, and she reads about a book a day.

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