Last week I tagged along with my husband who went to New Orleans for a conference. It seemed like a good way to have a mini-vacation of sorts, and I considered it work-related. What better way to come up with new ideas for stories than to go to someplace like New Orleans?
If you are stuck for ideas, go there and take a tour. Any tour, doesn’t matter. There’s something about that place that encourages the imagination and tempts the muse to come out and play. Mine had a great time dancing through the cemeteries. I got an idea for my next story while touring St. Louis Cemetery #1. If you’ve never been, that’s where Marie Laveau is buried. Or entombed, I should say.
The Cities of the Dead are fascinating. If you’re from Europe, it won’t be new to you. If you’re from Texas, you just don’t see many places like this. The rumor that they use tombs, rather than bury in the ground, because the water table is too high is wrong. I saw many buried-in-the-ground graves on our tours. The reason they do it is buried (no pun intended. OK, maybe it was) in their Spanish (yes Spanish) and French history. It’s a pretty common way of handling the dead in Europe, one they brought with them when they occupied the territory. (A huge fire, and disease, killed off a lot of people who all had to go somewhere!)
I loved the whole idea of having one tomb for the entire family. It’s the original recycling. Basically, they stick Aunt Martha in the tomb, and leave her to bake for a year and a day. By the end of that time she’s reduced to ash, a few bones, and possibly breast implants. They scoop her into a bag and push it to the back of the tomb, destroy what’s left of the casket and voila! There’s room for Uncle Fred! What I found fascinating was if everyone in your family used that tomb you would end up with your entire family tree inscribed on it for all time. Or until it weathered away, I suppose. No decision to make on where to bury someone. No huge expense either, because the tomb already exists. No point in using a fancy casket, as it gets destroyed when they make way for the next person.
And for all time, your family knows where to get in touch with you. Maybe for some that’s not a good thing. But I think for a lot of people that would be comforting. For example, our tour guide pointed out one type of tomb…the wall vault. They were pristine and painted white, generally. It’s where they put people who don’t have a family vault or can’t afford one. The poor people section, I suppose. Condos, someone called it. Then she pointed out one particular vault which stood out from the rest:
Why does it look like that? Because that’s where this man’s grandmother resides. (I’m sorry, I didn’t catch his name.) He visits her every day. He brings her flowers, trinkets, beads. He hand-paints her front door so she has something pretty. By hand-paint, I mean literally. As in, no brush. Only fingers.
After he started his art fest, they instituted a rule so that nobody else would follow suit. The rest remain white and cold. But this particular tomb has been “grandmothered” in, so to speak. They don’t dare tell him to stop. His grandmother might get mad.
I don’t like to think about all this much. It reminds me just how fleeting life is, and how someday someone will have to make those decisions about me. Or I’ll have to make them about someone I love. And in Texas, that means figuring out the right spot of land and getting a headstone and telling someone what you want it to say at a moment when you probably don’t feel like talking about it. I have to say, New Orleans has it right.
And let’s face it, what better place to be inspired! Anne Rice knew the power of places like this. Now I do too!
Note: I don’t write vampire stories or even ghost stories. But I got great ideas there anyway! At least, I think they are great. Hopefully others will too, someday.