New Orleans historic cemeteries embody colourful nature of this unique city
It might not be everyone’s idea of a great time but I have long wanted to visit one of the historic graveyards in New Orleans, so I booked myself on a walking tour of the St. Louis Cemetery #1. Unfortunately, due to vandalism and inappropriate behaviour, the cemetery is no longer open to the public except on a guided tour or to visit a loved one.
I decided to book a tour with Two Chicks Walking Tours. I think the name of the company caught my imagination more than anything else – I am a sucker for marketing! Anyway, after reading more reviews and about their ethos I decided I had made a good choice.
The meeting place was Backatown Coffee Parlour on Basin Street, a very cute coffee store, that to my delight served vegan pastries – I could not resist the sweet potato scone. Yummy! The name of the coffee shop, “Backatown” is a reference to this neighbourhood being away from the front of town – the districts that lie close to the Mississippi River. This part of town is also called Storyville, the one-time red-light district of New Orleans. Indeed a train line used to run down Basin Street and the prostitutes would come out to greet the incoming trains and welcome the men to town!
After meeting our guide, Christie, we set out for the St. Louis Cemetery #1, which is only a short walk from the Backatown Coffee Parlor. Despite being the end of September it was unseasonably hot and humid. For most times of the year, you should plan to take water and sunscreen as there is little shade in the cemetery.
The cemetery is managed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and their “guards” protecting the entrance, a couple of old grey-haired ladies, gave us a warm welcome. The Archdiocese closed the cemetery to general entry a few years back as there was a lot of vandalism, including graffiti, defacing of the tombs and stealing statues for resale.
St. Louis Cemetery received its first burials in 1789. The original New Orleans cemetery, St. Peters, which had opened in the French Quarter in 1723, 5 years after New Orleans’ founding had become full. The city’s original settlers decided to adopt traditional burial techniques and put coffins into the ground – in New Orleans, with its high water table, this is not a good idea. They found as they dug down even a few feet they would come across water. So, they would put the coffin in the ground and jump up and down on it until it was stuck in the mud and then they would fill the grave. The only problem was when the Mississippi flooded, as it often does, they would find coffins floating around. Not good! The solution was to bury people above ground in tombs.
There are tens of thousands of people buried in this relatively tiny place. How can this be? Well, many of the tombs are shared crypts. Bodies are placed in the relatively cosy openings, some literally in the walls of the cemetery, which look very much like a bread oven. Once the body is inside the opening is sealed. For much of the year the temperature and humidity in New Orleans are high, so things get hot inside the space where the body has been placed and decomposition happens at an accelerated rate. The danger here is that there is a build-up of gases and the seal of the tomb is in danger of exploding. Needless to say, this would not be good. So, what happens is that after a period of time, traditionally one year and one day the tomb is opened and the remains, which are now more compact are put in a sheet and pushed to the back of the space with a long pole. This is supposedly where the phrase about “not touching something with a ten-foot pole” originates – others believe their term originates from boatman in the UK who used 10-foot poles to propel their boats in shallow water! Anyway, the repositioned remains fall into spaces at the bottom of the tomb, so the original burial space can be re-used. Well, that is probably too much information for most people!
The tombs are owned, literally, by families, societies and groups. The owners of the tomb are responsible for their maintenance, but sometimes people move on, which has resulted in some tombs falling into serious disrepair. The Archdiocese will eventually intervene. Initially, they try to reach out to the tomb’s owners or their relatives – but if these people don’t want to pay then the Archdiocese will offer to take over responsibility but, expect to have the rights to the tomb assigned to them.
The cemetery was once popular for filming TV series and films, the most famous of which was a scene from Easy Rider starring Dennis Hopper and the recently deceased Peter Fonda. In a scene in the movie, they arrive in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, pick up a couple of women and head into the cemetery stoned on acid. The whole scene is a drug-induced trip with clothes coming off and things happening of a sexual nature! Peter Fonda has a delusion that one of the statues on a tomb is his dead mother, so he climbs up onto the statue and starts lovingly stroking its face. Whilst Hopper and Fonda are great actors their method-acting of stoned hippies was made all the more realistic by the fact they were actually stoned on acid. Anyway, in the movie, the statue that Fonda climbs on to have both of its hands present. When you visit nowadays one hand is missing. Rumour has it that Fonda broke it off during the making of the movie. Well, as you might imagine the Archdiocese was not happy with the idea of hippies visiting their graveyard, getting stoned on acid, humping and climbing on tombs so they banned all future requests from TV and film production companies.
As you might expect there are lots the good and great of New Orleans society from its early days buried at St Louis Cemetery #1, including national and local politicians. Also buried at the cemetery are some folks with a more interesting story.
Homer Plessy is best known as the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark court case challenging southern-based segregation.
Born on March 17, 1862, in New Orleans, Homer Plessy was a shoemaker whose one act of civil disobedience helped inspire future generations of the Civil Rights Movement. He challenged Louisiana segregation legislation by refusing to move from a “whites only” railcar in 1896. His case was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court and arguments from it were used decades later in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954. Plessy passed away March 1, 1925, at age 62.
One of the strangest looking tombs in the whole cemetery is a pyramid-shaped tomb that is owned by the actor Nicholas Cage, who is at least at the time of writing still very much alive and kicking and making movies. He apparently fell in love with New Orleans and decided to buy some properties in the city as well as investing in a tomb to be his final resting place. Well, Cage is well known for his hell-raising and is by all accounts really bad at managing his money. During his trips to New Orleans he’d host expensive and lavish parties at local restaurants and bars, but apparently never left a tip for the waiting staff – needless to say, he has built an unenviable reputation as a mean d**k h**d! Also, with his well documented financial woes (all self-inflicted) he failed to pay the city the taxes due on the properties he bought in New Orleans – so the city ran out of patience and repossessed them all. The only thing he now technically owns is this fine tomb which the city cannot take possession of due to the rules of the Archdiocese.
Probably, the most famous resident of the cemetery is Marie Laveau, New Orlean’s Queen of Voodoo. Sadly, Voodoo has a bad rap and is associated with witchcraft, black magic and devil worship. It isn’t a cult and its followers don’t worship the devil. People who practice Voodoo are not witchdoctors, sorcerers or occultists. Voodoo isn’t a practice intended to hurt or control others. Most Voodooists have never seen a “Voodoo doll”.
So, what is Voodoo?
Voodoo is a religion that originates in Africa. In the Americas and the Caribbean, it is thought to be a combination of various African, Catholic and Native American traditions. It has no scripture or world authority. It is community-centred and supports individual experience, empowerment and responsibility. Voodoo is practised in different ways across the world and varies from community to community.
Born around 1801 to the freed slave Marguerite and a free (and wealthy) mulatto businessman, Charles Laveaux, Marie was the first generation of her family to be born free. Laveau was a devoted Catholic all her life, and to her voodoo was not incompatible with her Catholic faith.
Marie Laveau saw individual clients, giving them advice on everything from winning lawsuits to attracting lovers.
Although people of all races visited Laveau and attended the ceremonies she led, the white community as a whole never accepted voodoo as a legitimate religion (which is partly why today it is still associated with the occult).
What is amazing was that Laveau was able to rise to such a prominent position in New Orleans through a combination of her strong personality, charity works, and natural flair for theatrics. During her lifetime she performed notable acts of community service, such as nursing yellow fever patients, posting bail for free women of colour, and visiting condemned prisoners to pray with them in their final hours. After her death in 1881, her legend only continued to grow.
Just around the corner is the Basin Street Station, a handy place to catch the bus back into the centre of New Orleans. This is a beautifully restored building and inside you’ll find a steam engine and an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina, showing its devastating impact on the city. There is also a quaint little cafe that is worth checking out!