Way off the beaten path, tucked away in the bend of a road in the middle of crawfish farms down in South Louisiana, in a remote part of Arcadia Parish is the Istre Cemetery. Now every little community has a cemetery or two because everyone dies. The death rate is still 100% last time I checked. But this cemetery is different from all the rest. It is different, not only from those in South Louisiana but different from any in the United States. It is sometimes referred to as “The Little Houses” cemetery.
It is common for tombs to be above ground in South Louisiana. The ground is often so wet that traditional caskets will simply float up during hard rains. And, very ornamental markers and other adornments are not uncommon either. But here, some of the graves have little houses built over the graves! Pictured here is one of them with a peek inside.
No one seems to know why the little houses were built. The only explanation I found was the words of one old gentleman who said they were “to keep the rain off their faces”. I guess that is as good as any! Some people have supposed that they were intended to house the spirits of the people. Who knows?
Almost without exception the names on the graves are French. This cemetery is in the heart of Cajun country where in many households only French is spoken. I noticed in the large town of St Martinville all the street signs in downtown are in English and French, and the menu in a restaurant in Breaux Bridge was too in both languages.
These French-speaking people are about 99.9% Roman Catholic but my guess is that maybe some Voodoo influence has crept into their belief system. It is not a stretch at all to say that superstition is common among the Cajun people of south Louisiana. One bayou I saw on TV was called by the locals “Devil’s Bayou”. The story was that if you went there at night you might turn into a snake!
Perhaps no one today will ever know why loving families, struck with grief, would go to a grave site and carefully, and skillfully, build a little house over the tomb of the one they loved. To me, the reason is not as important than the loving gesture, what ever the real reason.
If you have never explored the country where our beloved Cajun friends live, work, play, and worship, you should put it on your list of things to do. The rich, colorful heritage of those wonderful people who have given us great spicy foods and music as unique as the people playing the squeeze box and fiddle is an important part of our national treasure.
Hopefully, my recent trip will not be my last to Cajun country.