As a researcher interested in the growing relationship between ecological grief and rituals surrounding death and dying, New Orleans has always been a place of special curiosity. The city’s historic cemeteries are arguably some of the most beautiful and certainly some of the most visited graveyards in the world. Since New Orleans lies below sea level and generally has soil too water-saturated for earth burial, the dead have historically been buried above ground in “Cities of the Dead,” where rows upon rows of mausoleums are designed to protect casketed bodies from the defilement of water, microbes, and ‘vermin’ as a means of warding off decay. Gesturing towards anxieties about the ontological pollution of the human subject, these structures often seem to be constituted through desires to remain intelligible after death and act to inhibit the incorporation of the corpse into subterranean, more-than-human worlds.
However, as anthropogenic climate change threatens these kinds of normative deathways, the sustainability of such practices have begun to be called into question. It is estimated that on average, burials in the United States annually use 30,000,000 board feet of wood, 104,000 tons of steel, 1,600,000 tons of concrete, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. (I'm interested in finding out about more specifics about material usage in NOLA, but am still searching for that information.) This becomes even more important when considering that cemeteries within the city have repeatedly been disturbed by hurricanes and floods in recent years, an issue that remains even further inland from Lake Pontchartrain due to now regular flooding. When a storm hits, it can wreak havoc by destroying or displacing mausoleums, buildings, signs, and decorations. Even more disturbingly, vaults and caskets buried below ground can surge to the surface and float away. This has become a macabre pattern across the South in recent years: the waters brought by Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav, Ike, Irma, and Harvey all washed away caskets, in some cases breaking them apart and leaving local medical examiners and federal mortuary response teams with the rather grim task of identifying remains and parsing the environmental damage caused by potential leakages and run-off.
This new normal has brought wider attention to how the ways we “do death” affect built and natural environments, enmeshing funeral practices in broader questions of ecologically responsible citizenship and collaborative survival with nonhuman life. How has New Orleans responded to these crises, both materially and existentially? Is there growing recognition of individual and earthly mortality, and how is that reflected in mortuary practice? What options best attend to these forms of climatic upheaval?