Located dead centre of New Orleans (pun intended) is Saint Louis No. 1, the most renown of the cemeteries in New Orleans and the oldest. While touring a cemetery may not be of grave importance to some (ya catch that?), but to an anthropologist, it’s fascinating. Most of the city cemeteries are open to the public, however, without distinct permission from the Archdiocese or a booked tour, you can’t gain access to Saint Louis No. 1. Here’s a quick guide to what you can learn on one of these highly entertaining and awesomely educational New Orleans cemetery tour:
Saint Louis No 1
425 Basin St. New Orleans
Tour by: French Quarter Phantoms
1. The Bodies Are Older than the Tombs
The oldest tomb here only dates back to 1800. Now, a 216 year old tomb is nothing to sneeze at, but remember, the city was founded in 1718, and this cemetery has expanded and contracted considerably over the years, and during one of the many repatriation projects, bodies were moved from one part of the city (often to make way for development) and buried here at Saint Louis No. 1
2. The Cemetery is a Labyrinth
Ever been to Paris? Confusing right? Well it seems the French (and later Spanish and American) Catholics didn’t care much for urban planning. While families did in fact share tombs, there is no rhyme or reason to the choosing of burial sites. You could plop down wherever you liked!
3. Not Everyone Gets a Fancy Death House
Wall vaults, oven vaults, or wall tombs often served as the final resting place for those who couldn’t afford a more elaborate above ground tomb. Alternatively, if a particular family suffered multiple deaths, wall vaults were used as a pit-stop until the body within the tomb had properly decomposed.
4. People Bring the Darndest Gifts
The most visited tomb in the entire cemetery is that of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, a free Creole woman who was believed to practice voodoo and magic. Her influence lives on, long after her death, and visitors often place trinkets at her tomb like coins, hair elastics (in honour of Ms. Laveau’s hairdressing career), shells and various other things.
5. Tombs Had to be in Fashion
If you think you were going to throw your loved one in a tomb and cheap out on the construction, guess again. Tombs were expected to be elaborate, even garish, and most importantly, they were expected to reflect the grandiose home the loved one once inhabited.
6. Tombs Act Like an Oven
Look, the New Orleans cemetery is not for the squeamish, but when my tour guide told me bodies were sealed into tombs for a year and a day, my stomach started to churn. New Orleans law dictates bodies cannot be disturbed for 366 days, and after enduring an unforgiving Louisiana summer (where tomb temperatures climb to a staggering 300 degrees), a human body would be turned to ashes. Families would collect the ashes into an urn, or brush them back with a 10 foot pole (hence the expression), into a caveau at the bottom of the tomb.
7. Bodies Used to Run the Streets
Bodies? Running? The horror! Catholics buried bodies in the ground, and with a low water table, flood waters would rush in, uncover the bodies, and carry them out into the street! Eventually, the city built a wall and iron gates around the cemetery to act as a giant sieve. To make matters worse, this was during a time when Yellow Fever was running rampant, and this New Orleans cemetery was nearly at capacity.
8. Segregation Only Existed for Protestants
After spending an afternoon on two different slave plantations the day before, I was shocked to find out that there was no racial segregation within the confines of Saint Louis No. 1. In fact, slaves and domestic servants were often buried with their masters. Creoles, Muslims, Jews, and Catholics of all ethnicities can be found in Saint Louis No. 1, the only evidence of segregation is the short lived Protestant section.
9. Hollywood has Arrived
Yes, this tomb looks COMPLETELY as out of place in pictures as it does in person. Who the heck would build this hideous thing? You are looking at the final resting place of Nicolas Cage. No, he’s not dead yet, but when he is, this is where you’ll find him hanging out. Pause for eyeroll. That’s Hollywood for you.
I learned a ton more from this awesome tour, but I don’t want to take the fun away from the highly entertaining folks at French Quarter Phantoms, so be sure to head to New Orleans and book a tour or two to get the most out your time in a New Orleans cemetery.