Yet the relationship of New Orleans cemeteries to its carnival celebrations is much richer than simply beads on wrought iron or the odd Muses shoe left on a tomb shelf. While the Carnival celebration is one of life and vivacity, the themes of mortality and cemeteries often creep into the mix. From death-themed floats, krewes, and costumes to actual celebrations in the cemeteries themselves, our cities of the dead have been part of the Mardi Gras stage since the 19th century.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King
Of course, the interactions between Mardi Gras and New Orleans cemeteries have not always been celebratory. Even the glorious reign of Rex, King of Mardi Gras, must end at the cemetery gates.
Since 1872, the Rex Organization announces its king on the day before Mardi Gras. On Mardi Gras day, the King of Carnival rides with his krewe in one of the most celebrated parades of the season. Hundreds of community members have been Rex over the years. For some of the first men to hold the title of Rex, though, their final processions to the cemetery have been obscure, tragic, or both.
The first man to hold the title of Rex was Lewis Salomon. Descendant of a Revolutionary War hero, Salomon was a New Orleans financier who coordinated the first Rex parade in 1872, along with a number of other New Orleans “movers and shakers,” incidentally including Chapman Hyams (1838-1923), whose tomb in Metairie Cemetery is one of the most photographed of New Orleans cemetery landmarks.
Lewis Salomon was remembered as the first Rex for decades after his great parade. And although his final resting place may remain a mystery, it stands to reason that it does, in fact, exist someplace. Unfortunately, neither of these things were true for the third King of Carnival, Rex 1874, A.W. Merriam.
The Funeral Parade of A.W. Merriam
A.W. Merriam was the “proprietor of the largest billiard saloon in the world,” the Crescent Billiard Hall, which once stood at 115 St. Charles Avenue. In 1874 he was King of Carnival, presiding over the parades and balls which marked the splendor of the occasion. In a tragic incident that seems nearly unbelievable, Merriam died on the night of Mardi Gras. Said the Ouachita Telegraph:
The veritable "Rex" himself, in all the trappings of mock royalty, and the paraphernalia of mimic state, left the Mardi Gras ball-room on the morning of the 18th and returned to his residence. About 8 o'clock the same morning a member of his family entered the sleeping apartment of the masquerader, and found that a greater king than the discrowned "Rex" had invaded the chamber before, and asserted his sway over its tenant. Apoplexy had done its work in the night. The king was dead.
For most of those who served as Rex, death and burial was a rather uneventful affair. Yet one King of Carnival would have a much greater impact on the cemeteries of New Orleans than simply being buried there.
The Builder King
In 1915, Mardi Gras took place on February 16. Rex this year was Ernest Lee Jahncke, who “headed the procession on a golden chariot of state symbolic of his imperial power… crowned with jewels and wearing a mantle of cloth of gold, [sitting] upon the throne in the center of the car, gracefully acknowledging the plaudits of his subjects.” The theme that year was “Fragments from Sound and Story,” and featured such floats as “The Fatal Kiss of Undine (the water nymph)” and “The Barter of Mephistopheles,” illustrating the bargain of Dr. Faust with the devil.
Beginning in 1879, Jahncke was one of the first building supply dealers to make Portland cement available for his clients. While Portland cement had been available elsewhere in the country as early as the 1860s, its use was nearly unheard of in New Orleans prior to Jahncke’s business.
Since the 1700s, builders in New Orleans cemeteries used mortars, stuccoes, and renders mixed from hydrated lime, a material procured from burning limestone or oyster shells in a kiln. These materials required protection from the elements, usually achieved by limewashing tombs on a regular basis.
Portland cement, conversely, was much stronger and less flexible than traditional lime-based cements. It was also easier to work with and, after some time, cheaper than its lime-based counterparts. The introduction of Portland cement would change building in New Orleans cemeteries forever. After World War II, improvements to the manufacturing process of Portland cement would create an even harder, less malleable, cheaper product.
The Jahncke family expanded from serving as Mardi Gras royalty a century ago to owning a shipyard and a dry dock in addition to the cement company. Ernest continued these businesses into the twentieth century and long after his reign as Rex. He was, however, the Rex spokesperson who, in 1942, announced that Mardi Gras would be cancelled that year in the spirit of solemnity and frugality in the face of World War II. Both Ernest and Fritz Jahncke are buried in Metairie Cemetery.