Heart of Louisiana: Vanishing Cemeteries

Heart of Louisiana: Vanishing Cemeteries
Updated: Feb. 10, 2016 at 9:55 PM CST
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(WVUE) - There are countless thousands of graves that punctuate the Louisiana landscape. From cities to farms, bayouside to marsh – they mark the places where people have lived and died.

"If you look at the names on the headstones and the dates, you really see the immigration patterns that flowed across South Louisiana and you can really take a look at where the Germans lived, where the Acadians lived, where the Scotch Irish lived," said Jessica Schexnayder.

LSU researcher Jessica Schexnayder has spent the past five years locating and documenting the cemeteries of coastal Louisiana. She has visited 137 of them, using GPS to outline their shapes and capture common names and thousands of photographs.

"We are creating this record for future generations of Louisianans who may want to look back at this and see what was there before it's gone," Schexnayder said.

And the loss is real, like this cemetery in Leeville that is collapsing into a bayou.  And this sinking cemetery at Cheniere Caminada, the final resting place for hundreds of victims of a killer 1893 hurricane.

"As you walk through Cheniere Caminada and look at the headstones that do remain, you realize that it's all women and children," Schexnayder said.

Along with headstones, Schexnayder finds fascinating stories. The sharecroppers buried in this plantation graveyard near New Roads were the inspiration for the writings of Ernest Gaines. And the Istre cemetery in Southwest Louisiana contains these unique grave houses.

"I've mapped 137 cemeteries and that is the only one where I have found the grave houses," Schexnayder said.

We walk through cemeteries and notice dates, how long someone lived, maybe a familiar name. And then you see a grave like this, James Moore, and you know there's a great story.

Moore went by the name "Slim Harpo," a blues harmonica legend.

People come and visit him and leave him harmonicas. I've left him a harmonica, but a number of graves in that cemetery are in disrepair," Schexnayder said.

As people move away, as communities disappear, their old cemeteries crumble. And some cemeteries fall victim to eminent domain, where the government finds a public use for the site. A Superdome parking garage
replaced the old Girod Street cemetery. And another cemetery was moved for the Morganza floodway.

"And it's now called the cemetery of the unknowns, because when it was moved, they just put everyone in rows and each headstone says unknown," Schexnayder said.

Through her research and photographs and careful mapping, Schexnayder hopes a digital record survives when these places of eternal rest have vanished.

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