Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Different Attitude Toward Life and Death

One of my hobbies is genealogy. I don’t have much time for it these days, but a chance cyber meeting with a distant relative in Germany motivated me to spend a few hours this weekend rummaging around old nineteenth-century New Orleans birth and death records. It was a sobering experience.

I’m a historian. I know the death rate in New Orleans was twice as high as that of other American cities, thanks to yellow fever and malaria and all the other nasties that used to flourish in subtropical cities. But nothing quite beats reading actual cemetery records. Consider this run from St. Joseph’s Cemetery from a random stretch in 1871:

1 Jan, Joseph Dudley, 1yr5mo, spasms; Charles Weber, 18m, cerebral inflammation; 2 Jan, male child of Annie Gerdes, 1 day, debility; 3 Jan, son of Judge Daly, still born; Joseph Hall, 6 days, tris. noscentium; Joseph Blake, 37 yrs, gunshot wound…

After reading a few years of this, anyone with any empathy is left gasping with agony for those who buried all these babies, all these children, all these young wives and young men. (The gunshot wound is actually a rarity.) One is left wondering, how did anyone survive? And then the inevitable sequel to that thought is, How did those left alive cope will all this death?

As someone who writes historical novels, it was a sobering experience. I found myself looking at the marriage record of a young woman and then her death record some 16 months later in childbirth, and thinking, How many mothers watched their daughters get married and trembled, knowing how easily they might soon lose them to death in childbirth? Or what about the anxious new mother, holding her baby and knowing how easily every little sniffle, every little tummy ache could lead to another trip to the family tomb?

Some causes of death were familiar—lockjaw, burns, consumption, meningitis, pneumonia, gastro enteritis, scarlet fever; others were strange 19th diagnoses—pthisis pulmonalis, pyasmia, marasmus, albuminaria, congestion of the brain, acute nephrotes. A thousand different ways to die. But the question is still, How did those who survived managed to go on living and laughing and making love? How did they create this city that became know as “the city that care forgot” and “the Big Easy”? The obvious answer is, That’s how they coped with all that suffering and sorrow and death. They threw themselves back into life with an abandonment that lingers in their descendents today.

I have a picture of a stern-faced old woman sitting on an old-fashioned couch. Her name is Caroline Holderith Wegmann, and she immigrated from the Bas Rhin region to New Orleans in 1870 at the age of 16. She raised seven children but buried another four. I keep her picture by my desk as a reminder. Whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for my self or to wine that life is sooo hard, she sits there and tells me I’m her great-granddaughter, and I’m made of sterner stuff.


Steve Malley said...

Terry pratchett once wrote that history is like a car crash in reverse. You start with blood and broken glass and people screaming and gradually get closer and closer to a happy family singing on their way to a picnic.

'How did they keep on' is a subject I wonder at a lot too. I suspect the answer is right in front of me. An awareness and denial of death is at the heart of every human activity from arts and sciences to Saturday night at the pub.

We're hard-wired to keep going, no matter how rough it gets. Back then, the ones who weren't left the gene pool.

Great post, thought-provoking and very, very moving.

Charles Gramlich said...

I suppose when death is all around you, you take it as a given and simply go on. Today, when the deaths of children are fewer, at least in our country, we feel each one so deeply. It's amazing what human beings can get used to. We are very much like Fire Ants. Poke a hole in our nest and we boil out all angry, and then repair it and get on with life.