DENHAM SPRINGS -- Jessica H. Schexnayder’s camera caught the bull’s eye — literally.
She was standing in the middle of the Amite Baptist “Old” Cemetery, trying to document damage two days after the Great Flood of 2016, when the image of a longhorn bull with tan and white splotches popped up in her lens.
Schexnayder never learned how the bull got inside the cemetery, whether it was carried in with the floodwaters that inundated Livingston Parish or just happened to walk in through the front gate.
But there it stood, only a few paces away, and it didn’t look happy — nostrils flaring, legs kicking.
Schexnayder quickly forgot about her research and got out just before her husband John slammed the gate to the cemetery shut. The bull did his best to make sure the couple didn’t try to come back in.
“He definitely headbutted the door a few times,” Schexnayder recalled. “It was a scary moment.”
Schexnayder’s encounter with a live bull is just one of the many stories behind her and co-author Mary H. Manhein’s book “Fragile Grounds: Louisiana’s Endangered Cemeteries,” which combines data, photographs and stories of endangered cemeteries in Louisiana’s coastal zone and beyond.
In “Fragile Grounds,” the researchers explain how burial places “link the fragile land to the frailty of the state's threatened community structures” while also highlighting the state's “vibrant diversity” and the need to document its unique burial customs and traditions.
Schexnayder, a retired communications coordinator for Louisiana Sea Grant who lives in Denham Springs, and Manhein, a retired director of the LSU Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory, spent nearly five years doing research for their book, documenting 138 cemeteries across 20 coastal parishes and four others across Louisiana.
But what started as project solely for documentation purposes grew into much more.
“As we started collecting this data, people would come up to us in a cemetery and say, ‘Let me show you where my family member is buried,’” Schexnayder said. “They wanted to tell us their stories.
“So this book wound up becoming a collection of the hard science and the social science of south Louisiana.”
Schexnayder said the project itself first started out from a student paper she wrote for a forensic anthropology class Manhein was teaching.
Each student got to choose their own topic, and Schexnayder, who grew near a family cemetery in east Texas, chose to write on cemeteries and eminent domain (“the power of the government to take property for the good of development for public use”).
As a child, Schexnayder said she was “always fascinated” by headstones and the “stories behind the names,” but this project gave her an inside look into the danger surrounding some of them.
“When I wrote the paper, I started thinking about how the cemeteries on our coastline would be affected, much like with eminent domain, and what happens to the cemeteries on our coasts as the coasts erode and storm surge comes in and land sinks.
“I put those things together and said, ‘Oh my goodness, these cemeteries are going to be in the Gulf of Mexico!’”
After getting the necessary funding from the Louisiana Sea Grant, Schexnayder asked Manhein, an internationally respected forensic anthropologist, to join her in documenting the threatened cemeteries before they were “lost forever.”
Manhein agreed, triggering a five-year project that covered hundreds of miles, loads of data, and somewhere around 11,000 photographs, though Schexnayder isn’t entirely sure.
“I lost count,” she joked.
The book, dedicated to “the resilient people of Louisiana,” is 148 pages and divided into four sections: The Laws, the Land and the People; South Louisiana Burial Customs and Traditions; Select Coastal Zone Cemeteries; and Select Cemeteries Beyond the Coastal Zone.
There are nearly 250 photographs or illustrations in the book, along with 16 charts, graphs or maps. There is also a preface, an afterword, three appendixes and an index.
In the first section, “The Laws, the Land and the People,” the authors explain Coastal Louisiana’s troubling land-loss rate — about a football field every half hour and nearly 80 percent of the nation’s total coastal land loss — and the affects it has on the cemeteries, some of which are now “permanently inundated, very near to being submersed or lost to erosion.”
Manhein and Schexnayder also documented how storms — 54 they counted from 1851-2015 — have impacted these burials grounds, using a map to chart the paths of all the storms in the Louisiana’s coastal zone, which is comprised of 20 of the state’s 64 parishes.
“Isn’t that insane?” Manhein asked, looking at the lines of many intersecting storm paths sprawled all over the map.
In the second section, “South Louisiana Burial Customs and Traditions,” Manhein and Schexnayder spend 20 pages defining the different burial types — like oven vaults, copings, stepped tombs and tabletops — and customs — All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day, and the Whitewashing of Graves — found throughout the state.
“The way we bury in south Louisiana has intrigued people across the country when they hear of it,” said Manhein. “In the book, we defined a lot of the terms like ‘copings’ and ‘burial vaults’ because you don’t have so much of that in other parts of the country.
“This book just gives people an opportunity to see, in a single volume, the breadth of what we have in south Louisiana and try to understand it.”
The authors even debunked a few common misconceptions in this section, most notably the truth behind the aboveground-burial rituals in New Orleans.
Hint: It’s not due to the higher water table.
“We laugh about this a lot: Even people in New Orleans thinks the burials are above the ground because of the water table,” Manhein said. “That’s not true. The burial vaults you see above ground in New Orleans are there as a result of the Spanish and French influence when they lived there because that’s how they buried.
“It’s kind of a misnomer that people even from Louisiana don’t understand.”
The final two sections of the book dive into stories from cemeteries both inside and outside of the coastal zone, interweaving hard data, photographs and oral histories from more than 40 sites.
Some of the cemeteries, such as the St. Louis I Cemetery in New Orleans, are well-known tourist attractions with the decayed remains of thousands of people, while others, like the Cocodrie Gravesite in Terrebonne Parish, are less known, holding the remains of a single family.
One of the authors’ favorite visits was to the Mount Zion River Lake Plantation Cemetery, where lies at least five generations of author Ernest J. Gaines’ ancestors, the “inspiration for his stories,” the book says.
“We wanted to demonstrate the variety of cemeteries that are out there,” Manhein said. “We chose ones that are endangered and ones that are not so endangered to highlight the variation in the way we bury here in south Louisiana.
“There’s only so much you can do, so one of the main goals of our project was to document what we could before it was lost forever.”
The authors documented nine cemeteries in Livingston Parish, whose lower half lies in the coastal zone, but only two are written about in the book: Denham Springs Memorial Cemetery and Amite Baptist “Old” Cemetery, where Schexnayder had her encounter with the bull.
Don’t worry: Her picture of the bull made the final cut.
“There was no zoom,” Schexnayder jokingly recalled. “He was standing that close to me.”
So far, the authors have received mostly positive feedback from their book. They sold out in 10 minutes during the Louisiana Book Festival and were running out of copies during a book signing at Cavalier House Books on Saturday, Nov. 25.
Schexnayder also said the Louisiana Department of Health recently asked for some of their data to be used for Hurricane Harvey restoration in Cameron and Calcasieu parishes in southwest Louisiana, right on Texas border.
“Part of this book is really a call to action for people to preserve cemeteries or go out in their own community and document and preserve,” Schexnayder said. “We’re hoping that what we have done eventually becomes a digital record for the state of Louisiana.
“It’s a tangible link to an intangible past.”