These Country Roads
The speed limit sign said 35 mph. Fair enough. Most lonesome, country roads in south Louisiana are in poor condition. This one was not but there was no shoulder on the narrow two-lane. All I saw of the ditch were four-foot high weeds separating me from farmland. It was an early, cool morning and I was in Acadia Parish near the Vermilion line trying to relocate an area I’d driven by months past.
Near Bayou Queue de Tortue, among the rice fields and sparsely located homes of those who like living quietly, you will locate the live oak shaded resting place of many with surnames such as Istre, Dupuis, and LeBlanc. Istre Cemetery, with its’ unusual grave houses built above the tombs, has existed for at least 149 years. The unreadable graves in the oldest section likely predate the oldest known 1864 inscription. However, since there were no records kept before 1889, we can only estimate how long ago the Istre family donated this unfarmable, low plot of land to be used by the community as a resting place for loved ones.
Standing with the sunrise to my back that fall morning, my boots and the bottom of my jeans already soaked from the dew, I slowly gazed over the cemetery. With its few remaining grave house structures among the 840-plus tombs, the heavy solitude allowed me to examine and understand the thought that went into the making of this location. The oak trees that are now massive and draped with moss were planted to outline and guard with beauty and strength the original grave sites. As family members came home to be laid to rest near their ancestors, the graves spread past the massive oaks drawing with them a strength and unity of their own.
It is among the gnarly oaks and oldest graves that the three original grave houses remain out of approximately forty. In addition there is a newer home over a child on the east side, a loss by a family recently incurred. The old shelters are now referred to as the Unnamed Grave House circa 1900, the Istre Grave House circa 1925 and the Henry Grave House, circa 1935 that were listed on the National Historic Register in 2008.
The dates for the structures are estimated by the death date on the tomb since it was the custom to have them erected over the freshly dug grave by sunset. The true reason for building them, however, is undocumented. Most believe that it was to protect the new grave from roaming animals before fences contained livestock. Others say that prior Indian cultures influenced these new Americans with above ground burial or that it pertained to the old folklore of keeping rain off the deceased’s face.
One thing we do know is that grave houses are not unique to south Louisiana but they are unique to our southern culture. They seem to have originated in the upper south and followed those who moved here in search of farmland or other opportunities. These Uplanders’ grave structures are documented in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, and the Appalachians. In fact, you will find them in most southern states. Our most southerly Louisiana location, Istre Cemetery, is not the only place in the state with them. There are three other cemeteries within our border that still contain similar forms: Oak Grove Cemetery in Red River Parish, Bay Springs Cemetery in Natchitoches Parish and Pine Grove United Methodist Church, Prewitt’s Chapel Cemetery in Vernon Parish.
As in many community resting places, there seems to be a division in Istre Cemetery between the Catholic section, where the full house structure types are located, and the Protestant section, where fences surround the graves. There remain two old fence structures on the Protestant west end in Istre; one barely left standing along the headstones that resemble oak logs made of cement or marble and marked with the Masonic logo.
Whatever the reason for the grave houses, the need for them moved westward with people until the popularity for them declined around the 1930s. After World War II, when funerals were no longer held in family homes and burial was handled by an outside source, the number of structures rapidly declined. Convenience changes our lives and so it did to one of the South’s cultural traditions. Until time further ravages and finally claims them, these unique structures to our modern culture stand as a testament to the care of our ancestors from their loved ones of another time and era.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.