Natchitoches Parish, LA

I went up to Natchitoches the Saturday after Thanksgiving to go to a local crafts show at the events center. I didn’t find anything I really felt the desire to spend money on–for some reason, it seemed like half the vendors were selling handmade bath bombs, which is… kind of a dated trend?–but I don’t count it as a wasted trip, as there were some things in the parish I’ve been wanting to photograph. (I’ve already photographed the town). As always, these are cell phone shots and film shots will follow when I finish shooting the roll and get them developed.

Slave cabins at Magnolia Plantation:

Magnolia Plantation

Magnolia Plantation

Magnolia Plantation

St. Augustine, which was built by free black planters who sat in the front pews ahead of white parishioners (decades before the Civil War):

St. Augustine

Bay Springs Cemetery, which had another grave house:

Bay Springs Cemetery

Bay Springs Cemetery

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Talbert-Pierson Cemetery, Vernon Parish, Louisiana

A couple of weeks ago I was idly Googling “grave houses”, I don’t even remember why. I was under the impression that the only cemetery that had them in Louisiana was Istre Cemetery in Acadia Parish. It’s only about an hour from Abbeville and I’ve taken photos there a couple of times. But to my surprise, another cemetery was mentioned in the results: Talbert-Pierson in Vernon Parish, near Pitkin. So of course I resolved to go there as soon as possible. Last weekend was unusually cool and, except for some early morning showers, clear, so off I went. It’s about 2 hours from Abbeville, but I was in Lafayette Saturday morning for the Friends of the Library sale, and it was only about 90 minutes from there.

What I find the most interesting about grave houses is that no one really knows what their original purpose was. It could have been spiritual, or just practical, as a way of protecting graves from animals and weather, or some combination of the two. Every once in a while someone will construct a new one, but always in a cemetery where there are older ones, and says it’s “tradition”. But nothing starts as a tradition. People like to claim they’re a “Cajun tradition” in the areas that have them, but that’s flatly untrue—if it was, there’d be hundreds or thousands of them all over south Louisiana. (Added to which, Vernon Parish is Central Louisiana and doesn’t have a particularly strong Cajun influence.) They’re much more common in the upland or mountain south, so it’s more likely the first ones were constructed by someone who’d moved south from, say, North Carolina or Kentucky. And other people liked them, so more got built, and then it became a tradition in that cemetery.

Talbert-Pierson has more grave houses than Istre, about a dozen as compared to 3 or 4. They’re also in much better shape; although with one exception over a grave from 2003, they’re over the graves of people who died in the late 18th/early 19th century, so I assume some caretaking is going on. They’re different in design as well: where the ones in Istre are exactly like miniature houses (complete with windows and locking doors) that completely enclose the grave, the one in Talbert-Pierson are more open. They’re like picket fences holding up a roof, and most of the burial mounds are covered in shells. (Vernon Parish is well inland, but the Calcasieu River is nearby.)

As always, these are some digital shots and film will follow:

Talbert-Pierson Cemetery

Talbert-Pierson Cemetery

Talbert-Pierson Cemetery

Talbert-Pierson Cemetery

Talbert-Pierson Cemetery

Talbert-Pierson Cemetery

Talbert-Pierson Cemetery

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2nd visit to Istre Cemetery

I first went to this cemetery, which is about an hour north of Abbeville, in Acadia Parish, in late spring of last year. I read about it in the south Louisiana guidebook that I took from Granny’s apartment after she died—I love that book, it mentions some really out-of-the-way places that I probably would never hear of otherwise and has led to many photos I might not have taken without it. The book mentions this cemetery because it’s the only one in Louisiana with grave houses, a custom that is more common in the mountain south (Appalachia, mainly) than the deep south. I wanted to see if any new houses had been constructed; the practice had been dying out, but is undergoing a local revival and there were 2 new houses when I last went.

There weren’t any additional houses, but instead I became interested in all the Virgin Mary statues. This is a heavily Catholic region of the country and those statues are by no means unusual, but it seemed like this cemetery had a particular abundance of them. They never seem to get re-painted or cleaned, and you can judge their age by how much blue paint is left on Mary’s robe and how much lichen is growing on her.

11/08/14

11/08/14

11/08/14

11/08/14

11/08/14

That was Saturday before last; last Saturday I went to the Frog Festival in Rayne but the only photo I took was an Instagram of deep-fried Oreos. I try to go to a new festival every year, but this one has always been on Labor Day weekend before, which is hot as balls, so I never went. I guess the town decided they were competing with too many other festivals on that weekend and moved it. I couldn’t complain of the heat this time, it was a lovely 60° or so, which of course means the natives were bundled up like it was January in Detroit.

It wasn’t that interesting, to be honest. It had the same fair rides, the same ugly crafts (there’s ALWAYS a booth selling hideous fake-leather purses covered in fleur-de-lis at these things), the same local bands as every other small-town festival in south Louisiana. I guess the bands are okay if you like Cajun music, but it all sounds the same to me. (Same with reggae music. Every song has the same beat!) But they had good food, so it was worth the drive. Frog legs of course, both fried and sauce piquant. Frog legs are an old-fashioned kind of food, not very many restaurants around here still serve them. They taste like a chicken and a fish had a baby. And there was selection of all the other wondrously unhealthy kinds of fair foods you find in south Louisiana: boudin balls and red velvet funnel cakes and fried… everything. Pickles, alligator meat, Oreos and Twinkies and Snickers bars.

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Smena 8M: Istre Cemetery

I think I’ve got the hang of framing with this camera, most of the composition in this roll came out as I intended.

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I’m still in the honeymoon phase with this camera and would love to bring it to Laguna Niguel to shoot my aunt’s wedding, but the reception is indoors and I’ll need something that will accept a flash. (There’s some kind of adapter on this camera but my flash doesn’t work, so either it’s broken, it used a proprietary flash, or it’s for a light meter.) I definitely want to shoot 35mm, because 120 is only 12 exposures per roll, so it’s probably going to come down between the LC-A+ and the Blackbird Fly. …maybe I’ll bring the Diana and a couple of rolls of 120 too, what the heck.

I leave on July 25th, I can almost taste the In N’ Out animal-style cheeseburger I’m gonna get as soon as I get off the plane. And my aunt is paying for my hotel room and offered to cover processing fees, too.

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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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