Everything you need to know about New Orleans’ Cities of the Dead~5 min read
There is no shortage of spooky graveyards in America, especially in the South and, it seems, when it comes to burying the dead no city does it better, and with more extravagance, than New Orleans.
With row after row of above-ground tombs, New Orleans cemeteries are often referred to as “Cities of the Dead.”
Burying the dead in a city that is below sea level and prone to flooding is no easy task. The dead prefer to stay dry and if not kept that way will make their displeasure known to the living, usually in the middle of the night in the form of zombie!
Humour apart, already early settlers in the area struggled with different methods to bury the dead. Burial plots are shallow in New Orleans because the water table is very high, and if you dig a few meter down, the grave becomes soggy, filling with water, with the coffin that will literally float. So they tried placing stones in and on top of coffins to weigh them down and keep them underground. Unfortunately, after a rainstorm, the rising water table would literally pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. Another attempt was to bore holes in the coffins, but this method also proved to be unsuitable. Eventually, New Orleans’ graves were kept above ground, following the Spanish custom of using vaults. The walls of some cemeteries here are made of economical vaults stacked on top of one another, while wealthier families could afford the larger, ornate tombs with crypts. Many family tombs look like miniature houses, complete with iron fences.
A New Orleans graveyard is laid out just like miniature cities, with narrow streets and street signs, and It is easy to get lost in a maze of crypts.
In poor words, walk through any graveyard in New Orleans and you will feel the presence of the dead.
Many corpses are entombed at eye-level and if you feel the urge to peek through a crack in an older crypt, be prepared for what might be looking back at you. And remember: in some crypts, coffins are optional.
The high walls that surround most of these graveyards harbor a spooky feeling of isolation, while the above ground crypts used in the cities of the dead serve as slow-baking crematoriums.
The bodies rapidly decompose in the sweltering heat, quickly breaking down into nothing but bones. Lime poured on the body will speed up the process and sweet smelling plants placed around the tombs can help mask the odor of decomposition. One year later after the flesh is gone, the family can open the grave and have the bones pushed to the rear where they fall into a deep crevice in the back of the tomb, a process that allows reuse of tomb for other family members over multiple generations.
This is an explanation why many of the tombs are so old, and some hold piles of bones that even date back to the founding of the city.
There are 42 cemeteries in the New Orleans area, all with fascinating tales to tell and, of course, they host their fair share of restless ghosts. The oldest cemetery, Saint Louis No. 1, was founded in the late 1700s and it is still the site of several burials a year.
It holds several interesting graves, including earliest world champion of chess Paul Morphy, an architect who became one of Jean Lafitte’s pirates and the white pyramid, that is the future resting place of actor Nicolas Cage, commissioned by himself in 2010. Here rests also Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. She lived until the age of 86 when she died on June 15, 1881….despite there were a number of people who claimed to have seen her in the days after she died. Legend has it that if a visitor marks Marie’s grave with three X’s and turns around three times while shouting their wish, she will grant it. As you can imagine, this has led to her crypt being covered with X’s.
Another famous ghost to haunt the cemetery is Henry Vignes, a sailor from the 19th century. His family tomb is in the St. Louis cemetery. Before going out to the sea, he entrusted the wrong person with essential papers, among which was the ownership of his family’s tomb. However, while he was away, the person sold his tomb. When he returned from his voyage, he learned of this betrayal and died soon after.
He now lies in an unmarked grave in the pauper’s section of St. Louis Cemetery #1. But his spirit remains restless, occasionally roaming the City of the Dead and asking visitors about the whereabouts of Vignes’s tomb.
Due to the rise in vandalism, the cemetery was closed to the public in March 2015. However, visitors may still enter the burial grounds with authorized tour guides and companies.
St. Louis 2 was opened in 1823 after yellow fever and cholera outbreaks and St. Louis 3, opened in 1854, was built upon a former leper colony.
Founded in 1833, Lafayette Cemetery 1 is instead the oldest of the seven municipal, city-operated cemeteries in New Orleans. Immigrants from over 25 different countries and natives of 26 states are interred here.
Metairie Cemetery is considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the country, and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
It became a cemetery around 1872, and it is the final resting place of over 9,000 people including nine Louisiana governors, seven mayors of New Orleans, 49 kings of Carnival, and three Confederate generals.
So, If you ever find yourself in New Orleans, visit one of the cities of the dead. There is nothing quite like a walk among the corpses of Voodoo queens, witches, pirates, politicians and just every kind of normal people to remind you of just how short life is, and how extravagant the hereafter can be….
But, why the “City of the Dead” name? The New Orleans cemeteries were nicknamed by Mark Twain, the famed American author who was fascinated by them. In one of his remarkable literature accomplishments, “Life on the Mississippi,” he even says: “There is no architecture in New Orleans, except in the cemeteries.”
Images from Web – Google Research