Cities of the Dead: Metairie Cemetery (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down
And all led me straight back home to you.
– Thomas Brown and Gram Parsons, Return Of The Grievous Angel (1973)
There are burial places, and then there are burial destinations – cities of the dead so well-conceived and constructed that they have become meccas not just for the world’s movers and shakers, but for mindful travelers because they inspire intense contemplation of life’s greatest mysteries – life and death, the inevitability of change, hope.
Among the greatest of the world’s great cities of the dead is Louisiana’s Metairie Cemetery. Although less well known than Père Lachaise in Paris or New Orleans’ Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 (the reputed final resting place of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau), Metairie should be on the bucket list of travelers with an interest in the arts or contemplative travel.
The place to see and be seen in the afterlife since the property’s post-Civil War transformation from a horseracing track to a city of the dead, Metairie’s sprawling grounds are actually located within the boundaries of “The Big Easy” even though this necropolis bears the name of the community next door.
Officially chartered in 1872, the buildings and grounds are awe-inspiring. With mausoleums adorned with spectacular stained glass and sculptures as finely wrought as any found in the world’s most revered art museums and cathedrals, this cemetery seamlessly blends Louisiana’s native natural beauty with American history.
Among those interred here are men and women who played prominent roles during the Civil War, luminaries of America’s stage and screen, several U.S. Congressmen, nine Louisiana governors, jazz trumpeter Al Hirt (1922-1999), Big Band Leader and “King of Swing” Louis Prima (1910-1978), Baseball Hall of Famer Mel Ott (1909-1958), ‘60s rocker Gram Parsons (1946-1973), and business tycoons, including Popeye’s Chicken founder Al Copeland (1944-2008) and Ruth Fertel (1927-2002).
Fertel, a pioneering restaurateur who also happened to be the first woman licensed in Louisiana as a thoroughbred horse trainer, knew a good thing when she saw it. After purchasing a money-losing New Orleans steak house in the 1960s, she taught herself to butcher meat and then learned everything else she needed to know to make her business blossom – including the most effective ways to attract celebrity customers. Edwin Edwards was regular while still a sitting governor of Louisiana, as was ’50s music great Fats Domino.
A generous and personable woman, Fertel made lifelong friends as she blazed her unique trail by funding numerous charitable causes and building a workforce of single mothers to staff her increasingly popular chain of fine-dining restaurants – Ruth’s Chris Steak House. (The business name may have been clunky throughout the chain’s history, but the food and customer service have consistently been divine with restaurants across the nation regularly receiving ratings of four stars and above.)
Determined to maintain her alliance with longtime business partner Lana Duke well into the afterlife, Fertel persuaded Duke to plan, build and jointly maintain a mausoleum for their respective families. Their commissioned artisans labored from 1995 to 1999 to create a truly memorable work of art.
Dubbed the “ultimate retirement spot” in a July 2000 Associated Press story, the granite Fertel-Duke structure was erected “on a square 27-foot plot under moss-draped trees on the edge of a bayou.” Incorporating stunning “black columns and stained glass windows,” it cost an estimated $125,000 to $500,000. After the final touches were put in place, Fertel and Duke then:
invited 150 friends and family to a party … with tables of food, a band and guided tours of the sunset-beige tomb – as a celebration of life’s last stage. ‘We call it our last double,’ Fertel said, referring to a traditional style of housing in New Orleans with two separate living areas contained in a house. ‘We each have a side and plenty of room for our families.’
Why Build “Homes” and “Cities” for the Dead?
Although the price for residency in the Metairie Cemetery and other “afterlife retirement villages” may seem jaw dropping, other notables who have built similarly stunning tombs have made every penny count by employing a surprisingly modern and green strategy – recycling. At the dawn of the 21st century, according to the AP, Louisiana law permitted human “remains to be removed from the casket a year and a day after the death,” and then “deposited in a special cache in the tomb, the old coffin discarded and the space reused.”
But the biggest motivation of all for building grand mausoleums still seems to be the old adage that funerals and burials are never about the individuals who have passed on, but are undertaken for the living – a philosophy which Fertel clearly embraced when she expressed her hope that the “ambience” of her final resting place would “encourage visitors to linger.”
Mindful travelers understand that such encouragement to linger and reflect is meant not just for the families and friends of those interred at the world’s great cities of the dead, but for anyone wishing to contemplate the nature of change and impermanence of life – or simply to be comforted by the knowledge that loved ones are never really gone as long as the sounds of their laughter and their smiles are remembered.
If You Go:
Metairie Cemetery: 5100 Pontchartrain Boulevard, New Orleans, Louisiana
- Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (daily)
- Bed and Breakfast Inns of New Orleans: Lodging Search
- Save Our Cemeteries: Tour Information and Booking
Selections for Meditation and Mindfulness Practice:
- A Night-Piece on Death, Thomas Parnell (reportedly the first “Graveyard School” poem; published sometime after the author’s death in 1718)
- Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Gray (1751)
- Ode on the Death of Mr. Thomson, William Collins (1749)