A few days ago I returned from a wonderful, sweltering New Orleans trip with my best friend. It was our first time in the colorful city, and I felt its magic; a palimpsest of histories, of religions; of spices and libations. The smells of the city are rich, from the sweet, pungent scent of crawfish frying to the foul smells of stagnant water that gather after the rain has cleared and the humidity becomes oppressive.
Perhaps I was *most* excited to visit one of the city’s famed cemeteries, and my best friend very graciously let me drag her along to a tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest existing cemetery in New Orleans – though I know she enjoyed it as much as I did.
We booked our tour with Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit, and had a fabulous and witty tour guide Emma who guided us through our macabre journey. Because it is property of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, you must have a licensed tour guide to enter the cemetery. This is because in the past, the cemetery was open to the public, and during this time it saw (though probably well-intentioned) destructive vandalism, as well as the birth of rumors which contained incorrect information about which bodies were buried where. Such was the case with Marie Laveau.
Perhaps the most famous inhabitant of the cemetery, the Voodoo queen remained a devout Catholic her entire life and the archdiocese had no qualms about her being interred on Catholic grounds. Once painted over with damaging, acrylic pink paint, the archdiocese has restored her tomb to its original state.
Many visitors use to invoke the queen by following a short and simple incantation (spinning around three times, asking for help with a particular problem, sometimes writing an X on her tomb, and leaving a gift or offering) but the archdiocese has now said this is not allowed, much to the dismay of our tour guide who liked to partake in the fun ritual. There were also rumors surrounding Marie Laveau’s correct burial place, which the archdiocese also wished to put to rest, and that is why you see smatterings of x’s on other tombs that people incorrectly believed to be Marie Laveau’s.
Another famous inhabitant of the cemetery is Homer Plessy, who sat in the whites-only section of a railway car in 1892 and was arrested for refusing to vacate. Although he was of both European and African heritage, he was classified as black by Louisiana law, and so by sitting in the whites-only car he challenged the Separate Car Act. The case went to the supreme court as Plessy v. Ferguson and Plessy lost, giving way to ‘separate but equal’ laws, i.e. the ugly Jim Crow laws of the south. It wasn’t until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that the ruling was overturned.
The cemetery also welcomes new inhabitants – as long as you can afford a tomb, you can be buried there. Nicholas Cage is one of the more well-known (and perhaps odd) future inhabitants – and he has a large white pyramid tomb reserved. Aside from building new tombs, the cemetery is also quite adept at fitting multiple bodies within a single tomb.
Most tombs have enough room for only one coffin. When a new body is ready to enter the tomb (such as a family member) the former occupant’s remains are taken out of the coffin, put into a bag, and pushed to the back of the tomb or a corner of the tomb where they fall into a pit. The old coffin is removed and then the new inhabitant and their coffin are placed in the tomb. This process can be repeated until the pits of the tomb are filled and all of its occupants are quite cozy.
As I have always been fascinated with gravestone symbolism, I really enjoyed learning about the symbolism on the above ground tombs as well, such as the soldiers’ tombs that show the torch of fire turned upside down to signify the extinguishing of life:
After the cemetery tour, we imbibed at Erin Rose, having mimosas and a frozen Irish coffee (heaven) before wandering the pastel streets of the French Quarter. Later, we stopped by the Museum of Death, which was quite an interesting experience. I liked seeing the Victorian mourning artifacts the best, such as the ‘cooling board’; the serial killer mementos were a little too disturbing for my tastes due to them being extremely graphic in nature.
Of course, our time in New Orleans could not be complete without plenty of libations. My favorite potions we had were at Cane and Table, the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone, Bacchanal Wine, and Cure, where we had several drinks, including a lovely punch whose proceeds benefitted those affected by the floods in Louisiana.
If New Orleans has two things, it is a bounty of cocktails and cemeteries, and I cannot wait to return.
*If you are interested in helping those affected by the floods, here are a couple of resources: