23,707 infected. Not less than 4,600 dead. Such was the toll of the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 in New Orleans. The Crescent City was ground zero – the first point of contact in the United States for an epidemic that swelled north and eastward from July through November, taking 20,000 souls in total.
In the days leading up to All Saints’ Day, some health officials even cautioned against the yearly tradition of decorating and caring for loved ones’ graves. Said the Daily Picayune:
It should be mentioned… that some physicians are of the opinion that, owing to the extraordinary number of interments during the summer and the prevalence of infectious disease, it would not be safe for a general decking of graves to be carried out as on occasions of the past.
Despite warnings of public health officials, the overwhelming number of grieving New Orleaneans appeared in droves at the city’s cemeteries. The humanistic purpose of the holiday – to share in mourning as a community – held deep roots in this year. In each cemetery, reports describe strangers consoling bereaved parents and children, and neglected graves decorated by passers-by. Militias visited tombs of fallen comrades - those who had fallen in their battle against the “yellow scourge.” More than ever, orphan asylums harboring the surviving victims of the epidemic stood post at each cemetery, collecting donations.
Grave decoration itself had changed since 1865. Reports discuss family members placing photographs of their loved ones atop tombs. Crapes and mourning paper joined immortelles atop tombs and headstones. Chrysanthemums were popular as ever. The tradition of burning candles through the night was reportedly forgone in this year.
“...we feel impelled to pay a tribute of condolence to the many bereaved ones, whose hands have yesterday carried flowers to bedeck newly closed tombs. To fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, the whole human family indeed that resides in our midst… we offer our heartfelt sympathies and beg them to remember that Providence is inscrutable in its designs, but infinite in its mercy.” New Orleans Daily Democrat, Nov. 2, 1878, p. 8. Image: "Waiting for the Frost," Harper's Weekly, October 1878,
Below are the descriptions of selected cemeteries from November 1, 1878 paired with images of their present-day landscapes. The layers of years and variations in use are remarkable.
This cemetery is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in New Orleans… Visitors there will become enamored with death. Roses and violets, cypresses and mournful pines adorn the sad scene, contending with each other for supremacy. There the soft magnolias blow, and by the side of an humble grave with a white marble slab, magnificent mausoleums can be seen, of which Queen Artemisia would be proud.
The Daily Democrat also notes that St. Vincent de Paul opened a five-acre Potter’s Field in 1878. It is unclear where this was once located.
The grand old monument to the Cazadores de Orleans being almost hidden from view by two immense flags draped with the insignia of mourning… It is in this cemetery also that are erected many of the costliest private tombs in the city… but singularly enough, these tombs of the rich in not a few instances were not decorated with even a single flower or token of remembrance of any kind. This apparent neglect was probably due to the fact that the owners of the majority of these tombs are still absent from the city on account of the epidemic.
… was visited by many thousands of people during the day, many of whom expressed audibly their admiration for the magnificent row of oaks of the main alley, three quarters of a mile long…
The Potter’s Field had no immortelles. The old fence supported no bouquets of flowers… Row after row ran these beds of quiet and ease to the tired. The suicide slept quietly beside the maniac, the waif beside the fallen merchant… No visitors crowded the narrow paths between the long rows of graves, and not a foot disturbed the old coffin lids lying athwart the alleys.