This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.

Fragile Grounds: Mapping South Louisiana’s Cemeteries by Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein

 Jessica: Let me give you a little bit of background about this before we start this presentation.  This actually started out as a student project.  I was the student.  I wrote a paper in a forensic anthropology class that was about cemeteries in Louisiana.  The paper really pertained to imminent domain and cemeteries because in Louisiana, the living take precedence over the dead, so if a cemetery needs to be moved, it just gets moved.

I started writing a paper and I’ve spent more than a decade in coastal Louisiana working with Louisiana Sea Grant, which is a division of NOAA, working with coastal communities and working with sustainable coastal fisheries, sustainable coastal communities and have seen a lot of cemeteries during that time, and wondered one day, what happens to them because our coast is eroding so fast?  The answer is not what we’d like it to be.

I’m Jessica Schexnayder.  My co-worker on this project is Mary Manheim and Maurice Wolcott is handling the GIS work.

Bienvenue en Louisiane.  If you don’t know much about Louisiana, we are a gumbo of people.  We have so many backgrounds in our state, native American, French, Spanish, Cajun, German, Isleno which are Canary Islanders, Caribbean, African, Vietnamese, Portuguese.  This is just a small section of what ethnicities we have in our state.  I’m probably at least six of those backgrounds.  Louisiana is the only state with parishes instead of counties and that’s a concession to our heavy Catholic background.

Down here at the bottom is a link to a video about this project which I won’t show today because it’s a little too long, take up too much time, but once this is posted, you guys can go back and watch it.  It’s just an overview.

These are our coastal parishes.  Outlined right here by the lighter blue, we have 20 coastal parishes of the 64.  This map right here is from, I believe, 2002.  The Louisiana legislature redefined the coastal zone in 2012.  It’s actually much larger than this and extends now about 90 miles inland.

Cumulative Hurricane Paths 1842-2012 (Map Credit: NOAA)

Cumulative Hurricane Paths 1842-2012
(Map Credit: NOAA)

These are a few of the hazards we deal with in coastal Louisiana.  Erosion, I’m sure you guys have seen that on the national news.  We have subsidence which is sinking of the land.  We’re dealing with sea level rise.  We of course as you all probably know have hurricanes, storm surge from the hurricanes, and eventually climate change will affect us as well.

This is the shocker, when I show this image to people.  This is the cumulative storm paths from 1842 through 2012.  Basically, if a storm comes into the Gulf, it’s probably, at least some part of it, going to cross over Louisiana which is right there.  This is a major issue that we are dealing with.

Eighty percent of the nation’s coastal land loss occurs in coastal Louisiana and it’s estimated that the state loses an area about the size of a football field, so about an acre, every 24 minutes.  In my work, I do some K-12 education, and so when I talk to the kids, I tell them, “So, y’all know the Saints.  If the Saints were playing in the Louisiana wetlands, the field would be gone by halftime.”  That really overwhelms the children that go (gasp).

The reality of our coastal plight is the Gulf is going to take the land.  This is a NOAA benchmark project, and a benchmark is just a marker of elevation.  This is one from 2011 that NOAA set, so here’s the benchmark set in the ground and this is, right here with the pole so you can see the reference point of where it was set, this is 2-1/2 weeks later.

Here’s our benchmark and as you can see, there’s apparently land still below it, but because of subsidence and erosion, it’s now open water in 2-1/2 weeks.  This is in lower Plaquemines Parish, which is here, so this is where the benchmark was set.  This is our projected land loss through the year 2050, so wherever there’s red, that’s land that we’re going to lose.

Monument Panel Point (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Monument Panel Point 
(Photo Credit: NOAA)

My cemetery project:  This is a picture of me out GPSing a European cemetery that’s on an Indian shell midden found in lower … this is in Cocodrie, which is Terrebonne Parish.  We started collecting the GPS points and photographing these cemeteries in an effort to historically document them.  We’ve spent the last day and a half talking about preservation and how to save, so this is an effort to save something historically, digitally, that cannot be physically saved.

To date, I’ve mapped 86 cemeteries across our coastal zone.  This is just a subsection and each red dot is one that I’ve mapped, so as you can see, it’s a big project.  How many cemeteries do you think that we have in Louisiana?  Thousands?  That’s just the bottom of our state.  Each red point is a point that USGS, which is U.S. Geological Survey, it’s a single point that they’ve mapped and so you see here our coastal zone.  You see the ones that are in our coastal zone.

Now we’re not sure what people are doing over here in St. Tammany Parish because you can’t see the parish for the cemeteries so we’re trying to figure out that one.  You see our coastal zone with all the cemeteries and so I’ve gotten to 86 of these now, but actually there’s over 500.

If the USGS has already mapped all those points, then what makes this different?  They’ve recorded single point locations.  Unfortunately a lot of the data was taken with cell phones because it was just people just trying to help and they’d go out and collect their one single point with their cell phone in their family cemetery and then USGS uploaded it.

What we’re doing is we’re going out and collecting the outer perimeter points.  I walk the entire cemetery, the outer perimeter, and I collect points with a Trimble GPS along the whole way so that I can show the entire polygon of the cemetery and not just one point taken in any area.  It’s not standardized to USGS points.

Here, just a demonstration, so if you have a single point, there it is.  There’s your cemetery.  This happens to be Chenier Caminada which is down by Grand Isle which is about as far down our coast as you can go unless you’re in Plaquemines Parish.  This is what I’m doing.  I’m going along the edge and taking points all along the outer edge and this is the reason why.  If you have a single point, like this, and the land erodes, you don’t know how big your cemetery was.  You can’t prove how big the cemetery was unless you have maybe the records of the courthouse and they’ve got the land plotted out or whatever.

This is what I’m doing and we’re uploading all the information into a program called ArcGIS.  We are building a map for the state of Louisiana that will eventually show all of this point data and it’ll be available to the public.

Does anyone know this quote?  This is a photo that I took in the Upper Ninth Ward.

St.Vincent de Paul, Ninth Ward

St.Vincent de Paul, Ninth Ward

This is actually Desire and if you know the quote, then I’ll leave you with that.

Louisiana cemeteries:  We call them the Cities of the Dead, but something that most people don’t know is the stories about our above-ground cemeteries are a mixture of folklore and fact.  Our burial is above ground in a lot of places, but it’s not due to the water table as most people expect it to be.  It’s more due to French and Spanish traditions carried from the old world into Louisiana.  We do have water table issues, but when our cemeteries are destroyed because of water, it’s more than likely because of storm surge coming in and not water table pushing up.

We have All Saints Day.  From what I understand, Louisiana is one of the only places where you can walk into a hardware store and ask for gray paint and they will know exactly what you’re asking for because we whitewash everything on All Saints Day and it’s really aligned with the Mexican Day of the Dead.  It’s the day after Halloween and a lot of times, the priests or the pastors will say blessings over the graves and they light candles which are in these kind of containers.

Also in Louisiana we practice grave reuse.  These are some graves … This is Nairn Cemetery which is in that lower Plaquemines Parish that I showed you guys earlier, and when a burial’s put in place, by law it has to be there for a year and a day in order for the next burial to be put in with it.  You see those big vaults in New Orleans and in other places in Louisiana, like these vaults.

Holy Family, Cocodrie All Saints Day

Holy Family, Cocodrie
All Saints Day

They can be used over and over and over again because in the inner back side of these, there’s normally an ossuary and after a year and a day, the remains are removed.  If they’re not fully cremated by the heat and the humidity in Louisiana, then they are cremated and they’re pushed towards the back and they normally go down into the ossuary.  That’s how these graves can be used over and over and over again and once the ossuary is full, sometimes they will put a sign at the beginning or front of the grave that says ‘do not open’ or ‘cannot be reused’.

I’m going to introduce you guys to some of Louisiana’s coastal cemeteries.  This is Cheniere Caminada which I showed you in the point representation.  It’s a mass grave site.  There are very few graves left in here.  This one is one of just a few that are still intact.  Most of them are completely destroyed like this by multiple storm surges just crossing it all the time.  There’s about 750 people in this site, 1,500 residents; 750 of the 1,500 residents of this town were killed in a hurricane in 1893.  It’s mostly women and children because at this point in time, the men would go to New Orleans to work during the day, so they didn’t really have the warnings that we have now so it was the women and children that were home when the storm hit at 2:00 in the afternoon.

This is Merrick/Merrit.  It’s the former site of Merrit Plantation and it’s in St. Bernard.  It was heavily destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  This picture was taken in 2012, so this is the destruction that still exists as of 2012.  Katrina was in 2005.

These right here are called FEMA replacement vaults.  When a grave can’t be identified, it’s put into this metal casket and then put into this concrete vault and just numbered and then placed back in the cemetery.  This vault right here is on its end from the force of the water.  There were multiple human remains just laying in this plantation cemetery the day that I was there.

Cheniere Caminada

Cheniere Caminada

This is Valence.  It’s in New Orleans.  Here’s your ‘do not open’ because that ossuary is full and this one’s very interesting because it’s German and Jewish together.  There were a lot of society tombs here which are built for groups who want to all bury together for mutual benefit.

This is LaButte; this mound right here is an Indian shell midden and it has a European settlement near it with a European graveyard on top.  It’s around Chauvin, Louisiana, and on the back side, many of these graves have already slid into the bayou.

This is Cannon; many tombs looked like this after Katrina.  This is from 2013.  This boat was lodged in the trees near the graveyard so we know that this area was under water.  This sign was in the beginning of the cemetery because many of these burials cannot be identified.  There’s no records to identify the people.  Post-Katrina and -Rita, all the burials now have to have a tube inside the coffin that identifies the remains so that they can be identified if they’re uprooted by a storm.

This is St. Vincent de Paul.  It’s in the Upper Ninth Ward.  A lot of the houses are flooded, but if you can see, maybe, right here on this one, there’s a military X-code where the military came in after the storm Katrina and put who was living and who was dead on the houses, and so you can still see a lot of those codes on the houses and on the buildings around this area.  As you can see, this one right here is crumbling, but a lot of the cemeteries in the Ninth Ward are crumbling like this with no one really to take care of them.

This is Chalmette Battlefield.  I have a particular affinity for this one.  Let me introduce you to Miss Rebecca Wakeman who is also known as Lyons Wakeman and served with the New York Infantry.  No one knew she was a woman until the time of her death, and she served.  It’s mostly Union soldiers in this cemetery, but it is one of our national cemeteries.  It was also destroyed during Katrina.  This back wall has just recently been replaced, but a lot of it fell over in the storm surge.

This is a quote by Mike Tidwell.  He’s the author of Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast and it says, “The Bayou is swallowing de dead here…and you leave de dead where dey rest.  No one’s touched dem.  Dey’re gettin’ a second burial at sea.  Fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, dose people were buried on high ground.”



Leeville:  This is also known as Lefort.  It’s down at the base of the Leeville bridge right where you can cross over Highway 1 and go onto Grand Isle.  When I first looked at this cemetery on Google Earth to decide where I needed to take the point at, I didn’t see this concrete slab, so I’m not sure when this slab was poured, but apparently, the caretaker of the cemetery doesn’t realize that concrete’s just going to make it subside faster, so it’ll sink faster because now it’s heavier.  I don’t think they really realized that when they decided to restore it.

A lot of these headstones are just listed as ‘unknown’.  They don’t know who’s buried here, but some of these, like this one, do have the name and birth and death date.  The other side of this one does, and as you can see, it’s so close to the water that we have shrimp boats in the background, so I’m not really sure who decided this was a good idea to pour concrete on top of it, but many of these are already in the marsh.  Unfortunately, this was not a good preservation technique.

What’s really at stake here?  These are a subsection of some of the cemeteries that I’ve taken points on.  The yellow is the parish boundaries; the white are the points that if you zoom in, you can see all the primer points, but the white’s just the single point location.  There’s the projected land loss that I showed you that will happen through 2050 and as you can see, some of the ones down here will be gone, but here’s the clincher.

This is our relative sea level rise of 2.5 feet that they expect Louisiana to get by 2050.  It’s not just the cemeteries that are gone.  Half the southeast section of our state will be gone, but look at just the ones that I’ve mapped and just think, there’s over 500 of them.

Any questions?


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.

Speaker Bio

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.”



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