This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, October 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.
Fragile Grounds: Mapping South Louisiana’s Cemeteries by Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein
South Louisiana’s cemeteries are a rich source of cultural history. Throughout its history, the state has boasted an impressive list of cultural groups. Cemeteries associated with Louisiana’s cultural groups can provide valuable clues to the past and present identities of a community. As a coastal state, Louisiana is under great threat from coastal erosion, hurricanes, storm surge, subsidence, When people are forced to move inland from these coastal regions, cemeteries often are neglected or abandoned and may be overlooked as part of the endangered cultural landscape. Some coastal parishes have cemeteries that are already permanently inundated, or are very close to being submersed. As cities grow outward, urban sprawl begins to alter the landscape and some cemeteries may be lost due to forces such as eminent domain. Under Louisiana law, the living takes precedence over the dead.
Therefore, what began as an effort to document endangered coastal cemeteries became a project to highlight both coastal and inland cemeteries whose fates were questionable. Initial cemetery data collection began with obtaining GPS coordinates for all cemeteries encountered. A number of groups have previously recorded GPS coordinates for many of the state’s cemeteries, but most are single-point locations. A method of recording the outer perimeter points for each cemetery surveyed was deployed, allowing the total land area for each cemetery to be documented instead of a few random points.
Following the GPS coordinates, the cemeteries were recorded photographically. Data on aspects of each cemetery that might not have been captured in previous efforts, ie, unusual monuments, personal mementos, family groupings, local lore were also captured. Additionally, community members’ insight was recorded to link cemeteries to their respective community. The ultimate goal was simple: although the cemetery itself may not be saved, a tangible link to the intangible past can be preserved through GPS mapping, photography, cultural artifact documentation, and oral tradition.
Jessica H. Schexnayder has a background in anthropology and cultural geography, with a focus on Louisiana’s coastal communities. She has spent more than a decade working in, and studying Louisiana’s fragile coastline and the peoples who call it home. Schexnayder’s focus is the connection of people to place, and how environmental forces subject change on those communities and structures. Schexnayder began photographing and GPS locating the cemeteries of South Louisiana in the Spring of 2011 in an effort to preserve and document their historical location on the state’s quickly eroding coastline.
Mary H. Manhein holds a master’s degree in anthropology and has more than 27 years of experience as a forensic anthropologist. She is the director of the LSU FACES Lab, the director of the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons Information Program and a professional in residence at LSU. Manhein, a Fellow in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, has handled more than 1,000 forensic cases and is called on by law enforcement agencies all over the United States. Manhein is also the author of two books on forensic anthropology, “The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist” and “Trail of Bones: More Cases from the Files of a Forensic Anthropologist.”