"I felt like I was home" said my former employee and now friend Nick when I asked him why he moved to New Orleans last summer. I was curious what motivated him to relocate after only a few days visit to NOLA. As we consumed beignets with reckless abandon at Cafe Du Monde, omnipresent powdered sugar spreading over everything, the discussion rallied around the concept of home.
It actually started the day before, when I visited St. Louis Cemetery. My savvy travel companion, Jessica, insisted on booking us a guided tour of a city of the dead. Our resident guide, a spunky woman in her 60’s, led us through the maze of above ground tombs. The first thing she pointed out was that many of the tombs were intentionally built by owners to resemble their homes. A comfort, she said, to help ease the grief and confusion over death. A meaningful connection for the living to have with the deceased.
I wandered through aisles of plaster and marble tomb homes, passing by the famous residents of the cemetery. Bernard de Marigny - a wealthy man responsible for bringing the game of craps to America. Homer Plessy - of the civil rights-challenging Plessy vs. Ferguson trial. And Marie Laveau - the queen of voodoo, whose tomb is distinguished by hundreds of superstitious trios of x’s. The legacy each of those people left behind still massively influences today.
There are also people interred in that cemetery with no names. No known legacies. No great stories for us to hear on our tour. What’s left of them exists in mass vaults, our guide leading us by two of the structures. The first, dedicated to fallen soldiers - their eternal home address engraved by a solitary hourglass with wings symbol at the top. Our guide told us its meaning: time flies. The stone-carved image sent chills up my spine. Nothing like a huge vault of bones marked by sandglass to remind you that life is short.
The second, built to hold the remains and honor the spirits of musicians who had passed. The sun came out for a minute while our guide elaborated about the historical contributions of musicians in NOLA… but I tuned out the details. I closed my eyes, and lifted my head up to feel the southern rays on my pale Chicago-wintered face. It felt good, and eerie, to find a moment of repose within the streets of tombs.
I snapped to at our guide’s mention of jazz funerals, the traditional procession of brass bands parading in celebration of life following death. As we walked away from the musicians tombs, she spoke the words that have stuck with me since: “So you see… there is music in life and in death.”
In that moment, I felt a home of mine. Music. And I thought about what home means to me. While I’ve never felt that feeling of home in a singular location, like Nick did, I’ve always wanted to. I’ve only experienced my feeling of home at certain moments, with certain people, in certain places -- all pieced together over time to make a home within. And the music, always my comfort, always marking a meaningful connection to all of it. In life and in death. This lovely revelation, delivered on a random tour of St. Louis No. 1.
Our guide rounded us up on the street outside the entrance, thanking us for spending the afternoon with her. We went on with our day, grateful and contented by the experience of being alive. Spending a couple of hours in a cemetery can have that effect, I suppose.
And still, I search for that place where I feel what Nick felt when he landed New Orleans. He told me, with a mouthful of powdered sugary beignet, that I’ll know it when I get there. I think I’ll find my way to it through the music.