the grave houses of Istre Cemetery in Mermentau Cove, Acadia Parish

The past week has been nasty: well over 90 degrees with humidity to match. Nevertheless, on Friday I really felt like I wanted to go somewhere, so I figured if I got up early and went somewhere no more than an hour’s drive from the house maybe I could beat the heat. That… did not work out. I was done by a quarter to noon, and I still felt like I was going to pass out. I had a 20 oz. Diet Coke with me which, even if it did not stay cold very long, was at least wet. So I didn’t get dehydrated, but it was like the heat was cooking my brains. I had to sit in the car for a few minutes before I would trust myself to drive home because I felt so disoriented. How people lived here without a/c, never mind did physical labor like fishing and farming, I simply can’t comprehend.

Anyway, what I wound up photographing were the grave houses, or “petite maisons”, of Istre Cemetery in a little community in Acadia Parish, near the town of Morse. It was almost exactly an hour’s drive. Mermentau Cove is out in BFE, but I Google Mapped it and it was very easy to find. Grave houses are exactly what they sound like: a tiny house, complete with windows and a locking door, placed atop a grave. Sometimes it’s a large house that goes over the whole grave, and sometimes it’s a little one that just sits on the end where a tombstone would normally go.

No one really knows how the tradition started or what it means. It could have been practical–protecting fresh graves (in the days before they put a concrete vault over them) from animals and the elements, or it could have been spiritual. Building a tiny home for the deceased’s soul doesn’t really jibe with Catholic belief; I wonder if it’s something they may have gotten from slaves, or free people of color from the Caribbean?

It was once pretty widespread in the prairie region of Acadiana, but eventually it started dying out, probably because above-ground burial started to become the norm, due to the storms and the high water table. I read about the cemetery in my guidebook, and it said there were only 3 of the large houses left. But I counted 5 and 2 of them looked new, so apparently it’s undergoing a bit of a renaissance.

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One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Castlegem
    Jun 17, 2013 @ 15:03:25

    Fantastic pictures and interesting article!

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