Months back I discovered an Abandoned Louisiana Facebook group. Scrolling through a post about abandoned old cemeteries, I learned of a cemetery (not abandoned) not far from our house. I told myself we'd go out there one day. The Istre Cemetery located in Mermentau Cove, Louisiana is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of their "grave houses."
This morning we woke up and I decided we were going to check it out. Let me preface this post by saying I am adventurous, but I am NERVOUS. I had 20% battery life on my phone. I had never been anywhere close to this cemetery and I know VERY LITTLE about this area. I held my breath as we drove out. Crawfish ponds and small winding roads is all that was out there. I took a snap shot of the directions to the cemetery posted in the Facebook Group and pulled up my GPS directions and practically burned it into my memory. NO WAY was I getting lost out in the middle of nowhere with no phone!
I drive up and notice a truck pulling up the road behind us and out pops this little ole' Cajun man. Jon and I walk out to the two first grave houses we see and so does he. I ask if he is from the area and he says in the most down right Cajun accent you could have " well yeah, cher' I am the President of this Cemetery!" I told him we were homeschoolers and that I had found out about the cemetery and the houses from an Abandoned Louisiana Facebook group. I asked if he knew of the documentary that was made about the cemetery and before I could finish he said " well yeah I was the one on the documentary!" Talk about perfect timing!
Mr. Leonard Smith walks straight to the two grave houses Jon and I were interested in and tells me that those two buried there were his daughter, Tammie Smith, and granddaughter, unnamed. I ask if it's rude to open the doors on the houses, and he excitedly says " well, no!" "The doors were put so you could open them up!" My heart is racing at this point! This really could not have been a better planned day! Or so I thought!!
He tells me how he comes out regularly to check out the grounds and on the grave sites. He puts out a Christmas wreath on each of the houses and is planning to put a few eternal lights on the fence posts. He mentions that windows are made of Plexiglas because there are problems with people breaking actual glass. He hasn't put up the eternal lights in fear of theft. Broke my heart.
He tells me that at one point there were 60 grave houses in that one cemetery, but only 5 are left standing. Two of those are the two he built. Each of the five still standing are from old cypress lumber. He tore down an old house to get the lumber needed to make the grave houses for his daughter and granddaughter.
The inside of the grave house is beautiful! From my research, at one point, there was a beautiful rosary behind the cross laid out. If you look closely at the cover picture of this post, you can see what looks like once was a pinkish rosary!
Next, we start to walk to the next grave house when I ask him the reasoning for these houses. He chuckles and says well, there are two stories.
And I just brace myself. I knew this was going to be great!!!
Before I tell you of the two stories, I want to tell you of the next grave house.
Mr Smith tells us that Mr Pierre Istre was a wealthy man who owned 1,000 acres of land in the area. He made it very clear that did not want to be buried exposed to the elements and so immediately following his burial, this house was built over it.
As you can see here, Mr Henry was born in the early 1870s and passed on in 1935. One thing I noticed was the odd spelling of his name. I did a bit of research and from what I gathered, it's simply due to the illiteracy of people from that time period. Records show Pierre. Grave shows Pirrie. No wonder tracing back family roots is such a challenge!
I ask if he could show me the oldest site and he tells me that it is rumored there is an old Civil War soldier buried there. As we walk to the back corner, he says to me " if you put your camera phone in this hole you can see the skull." No, sirry! Not I! Jon on the other hand was crouching down trying to see the skull. He tells me of someone who stuck a camera in the hole and was able to see the skull inside the grave. He says "now if your camera falls in there, I am not going get it for you!"
Now to what we all have been waiting for... the story of how these houses came to be. Rumor has it that long time ago a husband was going to build a beautiful home for his wife. She passes on before he was able to do build the home for her, so he decides he is going to be build a replica over her grave to honor his word to his late wife. Interesting.
Other rumor has it that back in the day cattle roamed in the area and would " do their business" all over the grave tops. So, the solution was to build a house on top of the graves to keep them... protected ;)
I am not sure which I believe, but I can tell you this much, whatever the reasoning, the houses are beautiful!
Even the abandoned one in the woods.. yes you read that right!
My heart pounded the entire time. I saw bullet shells. Glass bottles. Beer cans. Soda cans. I knew that meant someone would frequent the house, but I had to see what was there.
An old table. Chimney in the middle of the house. An abandoned boat. I forget the story of who once lived there; guess it's reason to reach out to Mr. Leonard for another tour of the property!
We walk back to the cemetery grounds and he leads up to the final grave house. This one is unique in that it houses two grave sites.
THIS BY FAR WAS THE MOST ENTERTAINING MOMENT OF THE TRIP OUT!
I am almost died. In a cemetery because what I just knew had to be a WICKED thingamabob watching us from somewhere, I just didn't know where....
The doors were shut. Mr. Smith is telling us of stories of the area and I hear this wicked screeching sound. My heart stops in my chest. He keeps talking. I keep smiling and nodding my head all while thinking... what in the world is making this noise?
Before I know it Jon is standing at the door of the house and says to me Mom!!!!! There is a ....... CAT!!!!!! Y'all. I almost left my child in the cemetery by himself. I had a grand plan to hop over the grave sites and into my car faster than the cat could hide. Thankfully I didn't have to do that!
I thank Mr. Smith for the tour of the cemtery and quickly start walking back to my car. Along the way we come across a grave that has crumbled into the ground. He mentions that there is no name or year on it for them ever know how to get in touch with family members.
This seems to be a common theme. No way to know who is buried in marked sites.
I can't imagine how many are buried in sites unknown to any of us.
Edited to add 10/26/2019: we have since been back to the cemetery to meet up with Mr Smith with another homeschool family. The boys enjoyed the history of the cemetery. We even stopped at another cemetery in the area where we learned about the history of that area and did some exploring along the bayou!
As a homeschooling mom who found that her children thrived more when living life together instead of being stuck in a classroom 8 hours a day, I turned my love of travel and educating my kids into the perfect mix: unschooling.