Charity Hospital was an iconic institution in the history of New Orleans, and at the time of its closure in 2015, one of the longest lasting public institutions in the United States. Both Charity Hospital and its cemeteries are indelibly linked to the changed landscape of the city after Hurricane Katrina. Originally traced to the colonial period and operated by various charitable initiatives, the first Charity hospital was placed in the Vieux Carré in 1736. In the period from 1747-1815, the hospital moved to Toulouse Street and Rampart, then to Conti and Basin streets near today’s Lady Guadalupe Church, and finally to Baronne Street and University Place.
In 1834, it moved one last time to its present-day location, soon to be operated by the Sisters of Charity, and was run as a medical school operated by the State of Louisiana until its closure in 2015. Charity Hospital continued to see patients during its function as a medical school, and included 1000 beds by 1850. To accommodate the need for burial space, especially for the indigent population of New Orleans that the hospital treated, Charity Hospital secured two tracts of land — Charity Hospital Cemetery No.1 in 1847 on the riverside of Bayou Metairie, and Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 2 in 1849 on the lakeside of Bayou Metairie, just adjacent to Cypress Grove Cemetery.
The effects of stormwaters from the levee breaches caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 damaged the interior of the hospital. After almost a decade of debate about what to do with the building, the state finally began construction on a new facility called the University Medical Center (UMC). The closure of Charity Hospital after Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath caused much public outcry. Among many reasons was that its closure caused a rupture to its legacy of treating the area’s marginalized populations.
While Charity Hospital remained shuttered during the first years of the recovery effort, Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 1 became the site for the Hurricane Katrina Memorial. This memorial serves as the final resting place to the 86 people who died during the storm whose bodies remained unclaimed or unidentified, as well as a memorial dedicated to the 1,100 people who died in and around New Orleans due to the effects and after effects of the storm. The money to construct the memorial was provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with donations of up to $100,000 from the Funeral Service Foundation, part of the National Funeral Directors Association. This Association created the momentum for the creation of the monument and the final burial of the unclaimed bodies by the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, August 29, 2008. The monument consists of mausoleums arranged in a spiral, using the shape of the hurricane to create a “meditative labyrinth…[and a] healing space for reflection,” to quote a portion of the words inscribed on the monument.
Archaeological monitoring was required at Charity Hospital No. 1 during the construction of the memorial. Although the majority of the memorial was designed to be above ground, surface grading and excavation of select postholes for stabilization required oversight. Earth Search, Inc. monitored construction for the memorial in 2008, and in the process fragments from three individuals were exhumed, and examined. The remains, combined with remains from Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 2 were finally reinterred in one of the mausoleums in 2021.