Cemeteries are spooky; cemeteries are sad; and if you’re superstitious, cemeteries can be bad luck. So when I told my parents that I wanted to visit the cemeteries in New Orleans, they were not thrilled. However, I think cemeteries can be beautiful; they are full of stories waiting to be told and I couldn’t wait to hear them all.
There are three Roman Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans named Saint Louis. St Louis No. 1 cemetery, located just outside of the French quarter was constructed in 1789 and is considered one of the oldest and most famous burial grounds in the city. Given its location next to a housing project in a sketchy part of town, exercise caution and common sense when you go. I decided to join the group from Free Tours by Foot since they had done a great job with the Garden district tour.
Walking in the sweltering heat through the cemetery, you’ll notice that most of the tombs are above ground. How the customs of above ground burial in New Orleans started is hard to say. Some say it’s because of the high water table that coffins buried 6 feet under would continually rise up, even after they are weighed down with rocks. Others believe that it came from the Spanish and French tradition. Either way, we were left with these beautiful elaborate tombs in New Orleans.
Most vaults have compartments above ground that can fit multiple coffins and a caveau (French word for cellar) underneath. Once a coffin is placed inside the tomb, the wall is sealed with brick and mortar. Because of the heat and humidity in the city, temperatures can rise up to 160 degrees inside the tomb. After a year almost everything inside will turn to ash; hence the Judeo-Christian custom of mourning for a year and a day. After this period, the vault seal is removed and the human remains are placed in the caveau. The empty vault can be used again for the next death. During an epidemic, where multiple family members pass away at the same time and there was not enough room in the family vault, their remains had to be stored in the wall unit until it could be moved to the family tomb.
People’s final resting places, like their possessions in life, come in different sizes and prices. A more elaborate crypt, like the ones erected by the owner of Popeye’s and Ruth Chris Steakhouse can go up to $750,000. A typical family tomb with 2 compartments can cost about $50,000. There are also large vaults with twenty to thirty compartments erected by societies for their members. Dying is not cheap!
There are many interesting and chilling stories, but the one that stuck with me came with the famous saying “saved by the bell”. During the yellow fever epidemic of the 19th century many people in New Orleans passed away. Due to fear of contamination, if a person who contracted the disease appeared dead, they were immediately removed from their home and buried after a cursory breath test (a mirror was put up to the mouth of the person, and if the mirror didn’t fog up, then the person was assumed to be dead). In some cases however, when the crypt was opened after a year, bloody scratch marks were found on the inside. This lead to fear of premature burial, and a new tradition started where a string was tied to the person’s fingers and toes connected to an outside bell. Every night, during the graveyard shift a person would walk around and listen for the ringing of the bell.
Wandering around, you’ll notice the many famous inhabitants of St Louis No. 1 cemetery. The most notorious is Marie Laveau, a prominent voodoo priestess who lived in New Orleans in the 19th century. She was known for granting people’s wishes. After her death in 1881, she was thought to be buried in her husband’s family’s tomb. Many people believe that she was so powerful that she could still grant wishes even in death. People believe that if you make a wish and scribbled XXX on the tomb to mark your wish, it would come true. Since there were disputes about where she was actually buried, there were multiple tombs with the XXX markings. Strewn around the tombs are many offerings to Marie from people who had their wish granted. Another famous inhabitant, Nicholas Cage, owns a conspicuous pyramid that’s often frequented by many women. In 2010, Nicolas Cage bought a burial plot and erected his final resting place. This crypt is the only thing that was not able to be seized by the government after he he lost his money, and filed for bankruptcy.
Visitors to the city are eager to explore the historic cemeteries in New Orleans. The graveyard is a labyrinth of shiny new tombs mingling with well worn crypts, each one with their own unique story. Strolling through the cities of the dead, you’re immediately transported to another time and another place. Check back later this week to read about our take on the French Quarter.
- Free Tours on Foot: free + tip