CREEPY CORNER: Talking Cemetery Preservation with "Yvette Regrets"

"It’s still the final resting place of someone!" —"Yvette Regrets"
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Louise Hung
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"It’s still the final resting place of someone!" —"Yvette Regrets"

I love that I'm not the most knowledgeable person in the Creepy Corner. 

I love that, over the years, our little community of Creeps has shared so many smart thoughts and ideas about things that are not usually discussed with such clarity and sensitivity. We are believers, skeptics, and practitioners who have made our little corner of the internet a place not only to hear a spooky story, but also a place to learn. Your collective knowledge is staggering and has made Creepy Corner evolve into something entirely unique. 

Sure, we talk about ghosts, but our core is grounded in humanity. I will defend that until Creepy Corner's last, raspy breath. 

A few posts back, when we discussed the disturbing treatment of historic African-American cemeteries, a lot of you brought some really eye-opening information and experiences to the table. Through your comments and emails, I really got to know how far-reaching the Creepy Corner collective knowledge is. 

Some of the most thought-provoking comments came from longtime Creepy Cornerista "Yvette Regrets," a.k.a. Yvette Tyler. Yvette's insightful comments about the field of cemetery conservation/preservation piqued my interest. She was gracious enough to email me, and I got to ask her some questions about her work in cemetery preservation and its role in society. 

So here I present to you Yvette's and my conversation about the work she's done. Yvette gets the Creepy Corner Gold Skull Award today, a prestigious award that I just made up, but she will no doubt be the envy of all her peers. (One day we could have an awards show, and we'll call the awards the "Skullies" because it's a skull, but also as a nod to Dana Scully.)

St. Roch gates

The gates of Saint Roch's Cemetery, New Orleans. Courtesy Yvette Tyler. 

A little about Yvette

"Cemetery preservation is the whole reason I got into historic preservation as a field!"

Now that's a Creepy Cornerista after my own heart. Part of me wishes I could go back in time and tell 17-year-old Louise, "Hey Lou, this actually something you could do..."

And of course, living in New Orleans, who wouldn't want to hang out in cemeteries?

"I do live in New Orleans, which is very different than most of the U.S. in regards to historic preservation in general — cemetery preservation is no exception. We have a very active cemetery preservation community, several organizations that address this issue specifically (Save Our Cemeteries and Bayou Preservation being the two I’m most familiar with) and a local government which pays a bit more attention to cemetery preservation in general because it’s such a big tourist draw for the city."

Yvette holds a master's degree in preservation studies and currently works as a "program analyst advising on historic preservation concerns in construction projects." She told me I didn't need to include all that stuff, but why not toot your "I do cool work" horn?

TOOOOOOOOT! 

First and foremost, what exactly is cemetery conservation or preservation?

Yvette: It’s really a complex field. What cemetery preservation entails is highly dependent on where you live and the types of cemeteries that you have in that area. 

In New Orleans, we really only have above-ground tombs and mausoleums (with the exception of Holt Cemetery, which allows below-ground burials), so what we’re doing is closer to what you’d traditionally think of as architectural restoration work. There’s a lot of practical technical work, masonry repair, pinning of stones that are losing structural integrity, cleaning marble, applying new coats of limewash, etc. 

I’ve been to cemeteries elsewhere that have far more trees and plants than ours do, and so in those cases, you’d be seeing more historic landscape preservation. Cemetery preservation can also include HABS (Historic American Buildings Survey) studies of individual tombs, gates, walls, or even whole cemetery mapping and surveying. Of course, there’s also basic maintenance like picking up trash or simple vegetation removal. And then there’s historical research that has to be undertaken, especially if you’re dealing with unmarked graves, or areas that may have changed significantly over time, etc.  

Why do you think protecting cemeteries is important in terms of historic preservation? 

Yvette: For me, as a preservationist who normally focuses on architecture, I look at cemeteries as little microcosms of the areas they’re in. 

Tombs usually reflects whatever the popular architecture of the time is. You can find Greek revival tombs from the 1860s that look like little replicas of Greek revival mansions or blocky, midcentury-modern tombs that look straight out of 1955 because they are! 

It’s architecture scaled down, but it’s no less important than any other building. But that’s me speaking as someone who thinks about buildings all day. If I were primarily a preservationist who was concerned with art history, anthropology, or cultural conservation, I could speak more eloquently about how cemetery preservation affects those areas — but architecture nerd here, so that's what I think about!

Louise: "Architecture scaled down"! I never thought of it like that, but it's so true. Little houses for the dead, why not? Visiting a cemetery is like stepping back in time and actually getting to see and touch pieces of the past that are meant to withstand the ages. I don't know why I never made a stronger connection between, say, an historic mansion and a cemetery from the same era; of course they reflect each other.

Masonic Cemetery

Masonic Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans. Courtesy Yvette Tyler.

Who typically takes part in cemetery preservation? Government organizations? Charities? Volunteers? 

Yvette: It depends on who runs the cemeteries in question and the laws in those areas. 

Churches usually maintain their own cemeteries, public cemeteries are (theoretically anyway) maintained by municipalities, counties, or the state, federal cemeteries are maintained by the federal government. There are charities and non-profits that work in cemetery preservation but unless they’re specifically hired, they can only work in public cemeteries, assuming they have prior government permission to do so. 

Locally, the Catholic Church maintains a LOT of cemeteries, and they do not allow anyone else to go in and do any work there. Every state has a State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) that can help guide you to more information about who does what in your area.  

What makes a cemetery "worth" protecting or resurrecting? Why are some protected or rebuilt, and some aren't?

Yvette: I would be hard pressed to think of any cemetery that doesn’t deserve to be preserved. Even if it’s not historic, necessarily, it’s still the final resting place of someone! But that’s just what I believe. People tend to be willing to preserve (and to donate money to) something which is pretty and fancy and less interested in more mundane, poorer, or less beautiful places (which is the case for historic preservation in general).

Louise: "It's the still the final resting place of someone" — regardless of the size of the monument or the state of the grounds. It's amazing how we humans just can't get beyond assigning value in terms of wealth and beauty. Even the dead have to contend with our cultural biases. 

Paupers Cemetery

Pauper's cemetery, Marrero, LA. Courtesy Yvette Tyler.

When a cemetery is deemed "worth protecting" by the powers that be, what steps are taken? What is necessary to do when preserving a cemetery? 

Yvette: This is where it gets tricky. Many of the cemeteries in New Orleans (including all the ones I’ve ever worked in) are already listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, which is the official list of places that have been deemed worthy of preservation. That doesn’t grant any protections in and of itself but it’s a start. To be considered eligible, they had to meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation. 

Normally, cemeteries are not included on the National Registry BUT the ones here have been deemed significant from an architectural design perspective. I looked up the criteria at the National Park Service website and they lay out pretty clear directives on what cemeteries are eligible for evaluation and which aren’t. But even if the cemetery you're interested in isn't eligible for the National Registry, that doesn't mean that preservation projects can't take place there (but it does mean that I don't really know how to proceed).

(NOTE: Yvette acknowledges that the steps to go from a cemetery in need to actual preservation fall a bit outside of her expertise. If any of you have any further explanation, please comment!) 

St. Louis 2

St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, New Orleans. Courtesy Yvette Tyler.

Which cemeteries are at the highest risk? Why?

Yvette: Anywhere that is either in a highly desirable area or in a completely undesirable area. I know that sounds idiosyncratic but it’s true! 

In 1957, the century-old Girod Street Cemetery was bulldozed and bodies were literally scooped out of the tombs to make way for the Superdome. That cemetery's sole crime was that it was in the middle of an area where developers wanted to build. 

There are also a lot of little-bitty cemeteries, the resting places of only a dozen people, out alongside highways or nestled in neighborhoods. No one pays any attention to them, so they fall into disrepair.

[CREEPS: I highly recommend clicking on the link to read about Girod Street Cemetery...heartbreaking]

What can people like us Creepy Corneristas, i.e. cemetery enthusiasts, do to help in the preservation of historic cemeteries?

Yvette: Seek out a local preservationist group and volunteer, donate money, or take a tour or a workshop! 

Also, contact your State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) — they will be able to put you in touch with people who might be working on something in your area; I know different universities and church groups are active, and the SHPO’s office should be able to put you in touch with them

Louise: So...Creepy Corner Cemetery Fundraiser? I'm not kidding. How can we do this, Creeps?

Of course I have to ask, do you have a favorite cemetery? Why that one?

Yvette: I have so many, but I think my favorite is the Holt Cemetery, which was the cemetery for the indigent population of New Orleans. 

It doesn’t have the grandeur or the massive tombs and sculptures of the St. Louis I or II, or the tarnished glamour of the Lafayette Cemeteries, but there are grave markers made of styrofoam,and fencing made of PVC piping; its beauty is in the rawness and ingenuity of its architecture. 

St. Vincent De Paul Cemetery

St. Vincent De Paul Cemetery, New Orleans. Courtesy Yvette Tyler.

I personally hope to be buried in the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery in the Upper Ninth Ward; it’s tight and claustrophobic, with huge stone wall vaults — it’s like being surrounded by skyscrapers, and it’s my favorite place to sit and read, the perfect place to spend eternity.

Lastly, a big question: Why do you think cemeteries are important?

Yvette: Part of it is, I like creepy, beautiful, peaceful places. Any time I visit a new city, I seek out the local cemetery and pay it a visit. 

On a totally hippy-dippy level, I think it’s important that we find some way to honor those who came before us. I’m not the sort of person who necessarily believes that my actual ancestors are watching out for me, but I do think that I owe some part of who I am to those who came before me, and taking care of their final resting places is the best way I can think of to do that. I hope in a hundred years, someone shows me the same respect, and treats my home with the same level of dignity.

Louise: And that's what I think people forget: Cemeteries are the last earthly place many people are shown dignity and respect. Isn't that worth preserving? 

Thank you so much for talking with me, Yvette! But most of all, thank you for doing your important work. 

Have you ever had a job that may be of interest to the Creepy Corner? 

Do you have expertise in a field that deals with death, dying, mourning, or beyond?

Tell me! I may want to feature you in an upcoming Creepy Corner! Email me at CreepyCornerMail@gmail.com — let's talk.