Friday, April 6, 2012

Italian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb - New Orleans

Italian Mutual Benevolent Society TombItalian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb - Plaque
In the spirit of our Italian-related travels - we end up again in a cemetery. One of the stops after Marie Laveau’s tomb in in the Saint Louis Cemetery #1 was the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb. The plaque on the tomb reads:

“This architectural masterpiece is the most notable of the many multi-vaulted society tombs in the cemetery. Designed by Pietro Gualdi it was fabricated in Italy and erected in 1857 at a cost of $40,000. Ownership was ceded to the cemetery in 1986 by Loggia Dante #174, F. & M, which had acquired ownership from the Italian Society in 1949.”

A society tomb is an option where you could be buried in a tomb (not in just a wall or at all) if you or your family couldn’t afford your own tomb or if you felt a close association with the particular society. The way it worked is that you joined the society and paid dues of some kind or recurring fees so that by the time you died, you could be buried in the tomb. Society tombs are typically themed as this one is - Italian poor immigrants. Your remains in a society tomb might only remain in the initial placement in the tomb for a year and a day. As newly dead arrived and space was needed, your remains would be pushed to the back of the tomb and down into a great collective bone pile. The Italian Mutual Benevolent Society tomb is said to have space for more than 1,000 remains and is the tallest monument in the Saint Louis Cemetery #1. The statue on top is known as ‘Charity’.

Contrary to the commonly held idea that above-ground burial in New Orleans is only due to the high water table, the real reason is likely a combination of a high water table and other factors such as Spanish burial tradition and the ability of above ground tombs to accommodate a large number of dead without taking up valuable arable land.

In a different post, we talked about the feel of New Orleans and, in particular, the French Quarter. It is interesting to reflect now - after the visit - that New Orleans and surrounding parishes are not part of the protestant Bible belt that dominates religion in the south. New Orleans has a high percentage of Catholics and it is perhaps this influence that we felt familiar with and was unexpected.

Speaking of things Italian, we never made it into the Central Grocery to get a muffaletta sandwich. Che peccato! (In fact we missed the Piazza d’Italia - we may have walked by it but didn’t stop - and the American Italian Renaissance Museum & Library.) The Italian-American Central Grocery was founded in 1906 by a Sicilian immigrant, Salvatore Lupo. The muffaletta sandwich which appears on most of the menus we looked at in New Orleans was invented by Lupo. It is a sandwich made with the Sicilian muffaletta sesame bread. The vero-muffaletta always has marinated olive salad - ingredients typical of a jar of giardiniera. According to New Orleans Online, the majority of Italian immigrants to New Orleans are from Sicily and started to arrive in large numbers in the 1880s.

From Grocery to Grave? Central Grocery (left) and Charity on Top of the Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb (right)

Italian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb – Saint Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans
Italian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb – Saint Louis Cemetery #1, New OrleansItalian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb – Saint Louis Cemetery #1, New Orleans

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