I know it isn’t everyone’s thing, but I, for one, love old cemeteries. I love the history, I love trying to imagine what someone’s life was like, and I love photographing the tombstones. Some of my favourite cemeteries so far have been in Cuba, Turkey, and England. Now, surprisingly enough, I’ve added the USA to that list!
The cemeteries in New Orleans are generally called “Cities of the Dead”. Visit any of the historic cemeteries and it will quickly become evident why – the rows of ornate tombs complete with iron fences certainly make it look like a neighbourhood!
New Orleans has a number of amazing cemeteries to visit. Among the best known is St. Louis No. 1. This cemetery, however, is no longer open to the general public…without a guide that is. As long as you’re with an accredited tour guide, you can visit this beautiful place. And conveniently, St. Louis No. 2 is nearby so you can visit two cemeteries very easily in one half day.
Save Our Cemeteries
I went with a group called Save Our Cemeteries. They are a non-profit that was founded in 1974 with the explicit goal of restoring the historic cemeteries around New Orleans. Even though their tours are a bit more expensive than othes, I was more than happy to support them. The money is going to a good cause!
My guide was orange-haired Monique. She didn’t know it but she had her hands full with me. I was there because I had no other choice. I normally hate tours and the fact I had to take one to see a cemetery was not making me happy. But Monique ended up being a fun guide, full of puns and corny jokes. Her depth of knowledge also made me realize that I would have missed so much if I had wandered the cemetery by myself!
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Developed in 1789, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest in New Orleans still in existence. It was built in its location because at the time, it was outside the city’s walls. However, that put the cemetery below sea level – meaning it was always under threat of flooding. One solution was to continually add sand and shells to the grounds. This made for an unusual sight – I was not expecting to see shells in a cemetery!
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1: Tombs of Note
Marie Laveau: Arguably the most famous person buried here. Marie was a voodoo priestess who very much cared about the people of New Orleans. And her caring extended into death – there are over 80 people in her tomb but only 15 of them are actually family! Marie was a free black person during the American 1800s, a voodoo priestess, and a strong independent woman who did her own thing and made her own money. She would have been larger than life, someone to fear and respect, according to Monique. It was no wonder she was famous!
Nicolas Cage: Amongst the traditional tombs, there lies a nine-foot tall white pyramid inscribed with the words “Omni Ab Uno” – Latin for “Everything From One”. Nicolas Cage plans to be buried here upon death. Seriously.
Homer Plessey: Homer, of the famous American case Plessey vs. Ferguson, is buried here. In the 1890s, he challenged Louisiana’s racial segregation laws all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court but ultimately lost. This paved the way for the concept of “separate but equal” in the United States (i.e. allowing segregation and Jim Crow laws to be upheld as long as the segregated public facilities were ‘equal’).
Delphine Lalaurie: Popular culture has made this 19th century woman pretty much the epitome of evil but generally speaking, stories about her are exaggerated. However, she was still a pretty horrific person. Essentially, the woman enjoyed punishing and torturing her slaves. I’ll leave it at that.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 2
Not far from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 lies No. 2, built in 1823. The walk to this cemetery was pretty smelly – it’s located right by a fish plant. Thankfully, you can’t really smell it once inside the cemetery…and now that I think about it, I have no idea why that is… St. Louis No. 2 is less maze-like than No. 1: straight center and side aisles were constructed to make it easier to move around. The walls of the cemetery were built with red brick made from clay found in the Mississippi River.
I enjoyed wandering around this one – it’s less busy than No. 1, and in some ways, more atmospheric. Though that depends on which way you’re facing because in one direction, there is a highway fly-over right there. I also quickly learned that my sandal-encased feet were game to whatever biting insects live in the grass!
St. Louis No. 2: Tombs of Note
Claude Tremé: It is after him that the famous New Orleans neighbourhood of Tremé was named.
Dominique You: A pirate smuggler who worked with the famous Lafitte brothers. He also fought in the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, led by General Andrew Jackson.
Henriette Delille: A free black woman in the 19th century, Henriette shunned societal expectations (of becoming a rich white man’s mistress) and became a nun. She founded the order of the Sisters of the Holy Family. She provided health care, orphan care, and education to everyone including enslaved people (remember, this is a time when educating slaves was illegal). Today, she is on the track to becoming a saint.
Mixed society: Not just Catholics were buried in this cemetery. Protestants, Jewish people, war heroes, and Free Masons are here, too.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and 2: A few different types of tombs you can expect to see
Ground burials: Due to New Orleans’ swampy nature, there is a myth that there are no in-ground burials. Not true. There is also a myth that buried coffins would sometimes pop up in a flood. However, Monique put a damper on that entertainingly gruesome image when she said there are no recorded occurrences of this. Ah well.
Wall vault: Kind of looks like a pizza oven set in the walls of the cemetery and it can get up to 300 degrees in there! It takes about three months for a body to decompose in one of these during the summer months and six months in the winter. Also, the vaults can hold up to 50 people! How? Well, according to Monique, when a body had decomposed, they used to use a ten foot pole to push the bits closer to the back to make more room for the next occupant. RIP: Rest in Pieces.
Family vaults: These vaults are freestanding and many had little iron fences around them. An interesting thing about these vaults is that they followed a “year and a day” rule – only one coffin could inhabit the vault at a time. If someone else died during year and a day period, they were put in a separate tomb until it was their turn for interment.
Society Vaults: These vaults were owned by organizations such as benevolent societies, religious groups, law enforcement or fire brigades, etc. As long as a person was part of the group, they could choose to be buried in this fashion. Some chose this for nostalgic reasons and others picked this option because this was cheaper than a family vault.
Random Cool Thing
Many tombs were built with red brick (there is no natural stone native to New Orleans) and then plastered over. People used to do a couple things with the brick dust: clean their front porch of dirt and/or Voodoo spells, and sprinkle it across their doorstep to prevent evil from coming inside the house.