Cities of the Dead

New Orleans is famous for many things, among them are the cities cemeteries. When New Orleans was settled back in 1718 by the French, they buried their dead in the banks of the Mississippi. When a big storm or flood would come through, the bodies started coming back to the surface. For the French Catholics during that era, this would have been horrific. It was decided that they would use mausoleums and crypts to bury their dead. I visited two of these beautiful cemeteries during my time there.

These two cemeteries are in two distinctly different neighborhoods. St. Louis Cemetery is in the French Quarter, which was a mix of French, Spanish, and African cultures. On the other side of Canal Street is the Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery. The Garden District was where predominately white American’s settled after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

St. Louis Cemetery #1
St. Louis Cemetery Number One is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. Owned by the Catholic Church, the only way to tour this cemetery is with a registered tour guide. It was closed to the public to prevent any further vandalism. The cemetery was crumbling and in need of repair. A couple of the crypts have crumbled completely. The church now works in conjunction with non-prophet organizations to better preserve the tombs.

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Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of the 1800’s is buried in this cemetery. It is the most visited grave in the city. She was a French-speaking mixed-race woman who became famous for helping those in need and for her practices in the occult and fortune telling. It is rumored that her body was moved over the course of history, but the church has written records that say otherwise. Still, two unmarked crypts are vandalized repeatedly with a series of three X’s as tourists pay homage to her. She shares her actual grave with 84 other people. Marie Laveau did this willingly because she always looked out for those in need.

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Among the cemeteries famous graves is the one featured in the film ‘Easy Rider’. The statue has since been vandalized. In the film, the statue still has both hands. Peter Fonda can be seen in the film sitting on this statue. The director thought it would add a little extra to the film.

 

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Nicolas Cage, who has owned one of Anne Rice’s houses and the Lalaurie house, also owns a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1. When Mr. Cage fell into financial hardship and stopped paying his property taxes he lost both homes, but he still owns the pyramid-shaped tomb in the cemetery. It is thought to be an homage to the ‘National Treasure’ movies he starred in.

Funny story:  many Nicolas Cage fans have taken to covering their lips in brightly colored lipstick and kissing the tomb. As a Nicolas Cage fan myself, I can honestly say that the thought would never have crossed my mind. Who knows who else has kissed that tomb. Herpes, anyone?

Lafayette Cemetery
Lafayette Cemetery, much like the Garden District surrounding it, has been well kept over the years and isn’t in the state of decay that St. Louis Cemetery has endured. Yellow fever outbreaks every summer during the 1800’s filled the cemetery quickly. In family crypts, when room was needed, the casket would be taken from the crypt. The corpse would be put into a cloth bag and pushed into the back of the crypt. A new casket with the newly deceased body would be put into the crypt. This is how tens of thousands of people can be buried in a cemetery that is only one city block in size.

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Jefferson Fire Company No. 22, one of the larger volunteer fire companies in New Orleans, has a crypt there.

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Both Lafayette and St. Louis Cemeteries are known commonly as Cities of the Dead and rightfully so. There are many cemeteries in the city, each with its own character.  I had time for only these two, which leaves many more to explore in future visits.

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