Cities of the Dead: Exploring New Orleans’ Legendary CemeteriesApril 13, 2011 No Comments
New Orleans is sometimes known as the “City in a Bowl”. The original city, today’s French Quarter, is approximately eight feet above sea level. Much of the rest of the city is well below. New Orleans relies on a complicated system of levees and underground pumps to prevent it from filling with water after a hard rain.
Of course, early settlers had neither pumps nor levees. Cemeteries were traditionally built on the outskirts of town, where neither disease nor restless spirits could disturb city-dwellers. Early burials were placed underground, but the high water table and frequent rains often led to coffins popping out and floating down the city streets! Clearly another system was needed.
Above-ground tombs were the solution. Wealthy families built elaborate crypts and mausoleums. Many social societies and workers’ unions built communal tombs, allowing workers and their families to buy in for much less than the price of a family crypt. For the poor, wall ovens, a crude but effective solution, were available for rent. Paupers were still sometimes buried underground in unmarked mass graves, weighted down to try to avoid their popping back up.
Cities of the Dead
New Orleans’ cemeteries are often referred to as Cities of the Dead. The imposing mausoleums look like elegant homes with complicated design features, some surrounded by iron fences. The cemetery roads are generally paved and feature street signs. Deep in the heart of a cemetery, traffic noise is muffled and the rest of the city impossible to see. Time seems to stand still as gentle breezes whistle through massive live oak trees, creating a cityscape unlike any other in the world.
All of the New Orleans above-ground tombs function in roughly the same way. In the New Orleans heat and humidity, the massive structures function as slow crematoriums. After a year and a day, the body has been reduced to ash, along with the thin burial coffin or shroud. It is then a simple matter of sweeping the remains to the back or into a catch basin at the bottom of the tomb and placing the next body inside. This allows literally dozens of people to be buried in the same space.
Wall ovens work on the same principle as all other above-ground tombs. Rather than elaborate mausoleums, however, they simply consist of dozens of coffin-sized vaults arranged in long rows and columns. A poor family might rent a wall oven for a year and a day, at which point it could be reused by another renter. Even wealthy families occasionally used wall ovens, if a second family member died before the year and a day was up for their family vault. The wealthy person’s remains could then be transferred to the family crypt.
Cemetery Walking Tours
Dozens of companies offer walking tours of New Orleans’ most famous cemeteries, including St. Louis Number One on Basin Street and Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District. Proverbial wisdom states that you should never go into a cemetery alone because the massive crypts provide hiding places for petty thieves. I find this to be marketing hype for the tour companies, however. Many of the old family tombs are still active, and on any given day it is not unusual to see relatives decorating a tomb or even having a picnic in the cemetery. I have toured the cemeteries alone and never felt unsafe.
Nonetheless, if you are a history buff, I do recommend taking a tour of St. Louis Number One. As the oldest existing New Orleans cemetery, dating to 1789, it contains a veritable who’s who of important historic figures from voodoo queen Marie Laveau to Homer Plessey of the landmark Plessey v. Ferguson civil rights case. While it is possible to find these tombs on your own, a good tour guide can provide an excellent overview of New Orleans history, using the cemetery as a jumping-off point.
Our Visit to St. Louis Number One
We chose the “Cemetery and Voodoo Tour” offered by Historic New Orleans Tours. We met our tour guide, David, at Café Beignet, a small eatery next door to the Eighth District Police Precinct on Royal Street. He provided some introductory remarks before leading us to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Rampart Street, where the tour really began. The small church, built in 1826, is still active today. It was built as a burial church during the yellow fever epidemic and is the oldest original church building in New Orleans.
Perhaps the most interesting of the church’s mysteries is the statue of St. Expedite. As the legend goes, when the church was built it received statues of various saints from Europe. But one box contained a statue that was unlabeled.
Searching the box for a clue, workers noticed a single word stamped on the outside of the container: Expedite. So they named him St. Expedite and put him on display, where he remains today.
Leaving the church, we walked through a small grotto before exiting near the cemetery. Inside the cemetery, David demonstrated a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of New Orleans history and culture, leading us through the maze of tombs and stopping to share stories at particularly notable spots.
Incidentally, although it is not appropriate for children, make sure all the adults in your group have seen the 1969 film Easy Rider before your visit. It was the only movie granted permission by the Archdiocese to film in St. Louis Number One, and the film’s content virtually guaranteed that no other movie will ever be given that opportunity.
After the cemetery, David escorted us to an authentic voodoo temple on Rampart Street, where we spent some time with Priestess Miriam. The temple and outdoor courtyard offered a shady spot to relax, and Priestess Miriam was a gracious hostess.
The kids in our group seemed fascinated by the entire tour. Naturally, some of the information went over the heads of the youngest, but they remained engaged and involved despite the heat and humidity. David was excellent at presenting a lot of information in a succinct and easy-to-follow way, and his presentation style was appropriate for the wide range of ages in the group.
Located in the heart of the Garden District, across the street from the world-famous Commander’s Palace restaurant, Lafayette Cemetery is New Orleans’ oldest planned cemetery. It was established in 1833 on a portion of the former Livaudais plantation that was used for burials since 1824. Lafayette Cemetery is frequently mentioned in Anne Rice’s books, including the Vampire Chronicles and the Witching Hour series. It was used in filming Interview with the Vampire and numerous other movies. We elected to tour on our own, but cemetery tours are readily available from a wide variety of companies.
Canal Street Cemeteries
At the end of Canal Street, where it intersects with City Park Avenue, is a collection of six notable cemeteries. If you enjoy the dark beauty and architecture of the cemeteries, it is easy to simply take the Canal Streetcar from the French Quarter and explore all six at your leisure. If you are pressed for time, however, two in particular are not to be missed.
Gates of Prayer Cemetery
Built in 1846, the Gates of Prayer, located at Canal and Bernadotte, is the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in New Orleans. Unlike many New Orleans cemeteries that have room to drive through, Gates of Prayer is tightly packed. Street parking is readily available nearby. Burial underground is a strong Jewish tradition, leading to an unusual burial method in New Orleans. Rather than the above-ground mausoleums of the Catholic cemetery, Gates of Prayer mostly features gravesites that are built up above ground level and covered in earth. Many of the inscriptions are in Hebrew, particularly on the oldest tombstones.
Charity Hospital Cemetery and Katrina Memorial
The old Charity Hospital Cemetery, more commonly known as Potter’s Field, was a pauper’s mass gravesite. Located at 5050 Canal Street, it was unusual in that burials took place directly in the ground. The cemetery opened in 1847 and the majority of burials were related to the yellow fever and malaria epidemics of the 19th century. The cemetery closed to the public toward the end of the 20th century, with bodies that would have been buried there cremated instead.
Located in the midst of the Cities of the Dead, in a section of New Orleans that took heavy flooding from Katrina, the property was the perfect site to erect an elaborate Hurricane Katrina memorial. The memorial consists of two sets of wall ovens, entirely black with no markings, in a curved layout surrounding a central memorial wall. Benches are located near the center. The design of the memorial replicates the shape of a hurricane. Plaques on the memorial wall describe Katrina’s impacts on the city, and the wall ovens hold human remains that were never identified or claimed.
The memorial is quite touching, and is definitely worth a visit. You may want to visit the Presbytere, located in Jackson Square, beforehand. The first-floor exhibit “Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” helps to put the entire disaster into perspective.
Tips for Parents
The weather in New Orleans is frequently hot and humid, and it can easily be ten degrees hotter in the middle of a cemetery. Carry bottled water or sports drinks, and make sure that everyone stays well hydrated. Carrying a few snacks is also recommended, since it is easy to lose track of time.
Follow your kids’ lead and be prepared for questions. New Orleans funeral rituals are eye-catching and exotic, and many children seem fascinated by their surroundings. Keep an eye on your kids, as the walkways can be quite uneven and it is easy to get lost.
Since 1984, all new Catholic cemetery tombs in New Orleans must carry Perpetual Care, charged as a one-time fee. Before 1984, however, it was optional. Perpetual Care gives the cemetery responsibility for upkeep and maintenance of the tomb. Without it, those items were left to the individual families. As families died out or moved away, neglected tombs began to crumble in the Louisiana sun. Some tombs have been re-plastered and repainted by preservationists, but many continue to rot away. This adds a certain layer of either charm or disgust, depending on your thoughts on the matter.
The Cities of the Dead have a two-fold appeal for many visitors. The striking beauty and exotic nature of the above-ground mausoleums make them a favorite for photographers, while the individual graves tell the story of New Orleans’ unique history and culture. The cemeteries are still in use today, and it is possible that you will witness one of New Orleans’ famed jazz funerals during your stay.