NEW ORLEANS – Hurricane Katrina has transformed the legendary New Orleans (search) cemeteries, known as "cities of the dead," into a brown landscape of muck and stench. But fears that floodwaters would send large numbers of coffins and corpses floating away from their crypts were largely unfounded.
One coffin apparently displaced by the flood was found on railroad tracks near the Greenwood Cemetery (search), but the low-lying city's policy of interring their dead in above-ground tombs appears to have paid off.
"Our cemeteries are very unique and I know when people come to New Orleans, tourists and all, they love our cemeteries," said Lucy McCann, director of the Louisiana Cemetery Board. She cautioned that the full extent of damage is still unknown.
The city's position at or below sea level makes digging graves all but impossible. Many of the cemeteries are in a cluster of private and public grounds near where a flood wall on the 17th Street Canal was breached by the storm surge.
At Metairie Cemetery, the water line was several feet high on some of the mausoleums and tombs. Usually resplendent with flowering magnolias and pancake-smooth lawns, the grounds were caked in mud and a carpet of dead leaves.
Metairie Cemetery is the burial spot for many of the city's most famous sons and daughters, including William C.C. Claiborne, the first U.S. governor of Louisiana, the Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, jazz musicians Louis Prima and Al Hirt, and baseball Hall of Famer Mel Ott.
The tombs and funeral statuary fared well there. The elaborate red, blue and yellow stained glass adorning the Landry family tomb was intact — a pool of light in the middle of the brown and black landscape.
The scene was desolate at the nearby Holt Cemetery (search), which was established in the 1800s as a potter's field for people who died with no money to pay for a burial. Holt, which is still in use, is unique among the city's cemeteries because the graves are underground and because many are decorated with folk art.
Even before Katrina, Holt was a chaotic place where strangers shared caskets and headstones leaned to and fro. The cemetery's records are so spotty that historians don't even know where Buddy Bolden (search), the jazz pioneer, is buried.
But Katrina was unable to disassemble the chaotic charm of a folksy grave made up of wire fencing, Mardi Gras beads and puppets.
Reverent New Orleanians vow to make cleanup a high priority.
Bob Harvey, a lawyer whose parents are buried in Metairie Cemetery, said he plans to do much of the job himself.
"It's sort of a family tradition in my family that one member takes care of the family tomb until he passes on, and then someone else takes over," he said.