Heart of Louisiana: Istre Cemetery

Tucked away in a remote corner of southwest Louisiana farmland is a community cemetery, the Istre Cemetery.  Here, generations of residents of Mermentau Cove have found their final resting place.  In this peaceful setting, you find graves dating back more than a century.  But you also find something you are unlikely to see anywhere else in Louisiana.

"This is the biggest house we have left standing," says cemetery caretaker Leonard Smith. "It's the Leblancs are in this one. It's a husband and wife."

It's a wooden grave house that, according to local custom, was built over a grave at the time of burial.

Smith says, "At one time they probably had about 40 little houses here. But in the years, the storms… these deteriorated.  People didn't take care of them."

Smith has been the caretaker of the Istre cemetery for the past dozen years.

"This is a nice one," Smith says of one grave house. "They've got a slate roof on it and it's been here since 1935."

The grave structures are the size of a child's backyard playhouse, made out of cypress boards with a latch on the front door and side windows.  They're just big enough to cover the burial vaults.

Years ago, there were dozens of these grave houses scattered in cemeteries all over Acadiana.  Today, only three of the old grave houses remain.  And they are believed to be the only ones left in Louisiana -- that's what makes the structures in the Istre cemetery so important.

Documentarian Jeremy Broussard says, "I grew up thinking grave houses were something that appeared in cemeteries everywhere. Common misconception that children have."

Broussard's ancestors are buried at Istre.  A few years ago, he learned from an anthropologist that these grave houses are special.

He says, "This isn't something that happens everywhere. In face it happens almost nowhere."

Broussard and a few friends created a film to document the rare structures, and raise awareness and money for their preservation.  But they achieved something equally important with the help of the state: a federal listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Broussard says, "They immediately recognized that this has historical architectural significance."

But why were these grave houses built?  Broussard says, "There are theories that they were purely practical, to protect the graves from animals or the elements. And there are theories that they were meant as shrines."

These are only theories, legends past down from parents and grandparents.  It's a custom that may have new life, following the death of Leonard Smith's baby granddaughter.

Smith says, "I decided I was going to have her a little house made and put over her grave.  So I had it all built out of cypress, put a couple of windows and a little door on it."

Broussard says, "And there's talk among some of my parents, people my parent's age about having one built. And I get asked that question all the time, am I going to have a grave house.  And I suppose I have to at this point."

The renewed interest may save a unique Cajun custom that perhaps adds a little touch of comfort as a life comes to an end.

The Istre cemetery is located southeast of Jennings.  To find the exact location, you can search for Istre cemetery on Google Maps.

In addition to his documentary, Jeremy Broussard has also written a book called "Grave House Legends".  For more information, go online to http://www.corvuspress.com/jeremy-broussard.