New Orleans is home to many cemeteries, 42 of them to be exact! After all, it is a very old city. The above ground vaults have given New Orleans’ cemeteries the nickname of “cities of the dead.” The oldest cemeteries in New Orleans are known as the Saint Louis Cemeteries. There are three of them and they are creatively called St. Louis No. 1, St. Louis No. 2, and St. Louis No. 3.
New Orleans’ Saint Louis Cemetery No.1 is the oldest of the three Roman Catholic cemeteries and was built to replace the city’s St. Peter Cemetery that no older exists today. St. Louis No. 1 opened in 1789 and became the city’s primary cemetery where many famous people lay in their eternal rest. The cemetery is divided into three sections: Catholics, Non-Catholics (aka Protestant), and “negroes.”
When the cemetery first opened in the late 18th century, it was located far from the main population in the city. However, looking at it today you wouldn’t know because it is surrounded by the modern city. The cemetery was located away from the city to reduce the fear that contagion and disease might spread from the cemetery to infect the city population. The location was also a swampy thus no one wanted to build there anyway. Nearby was the Charity Hospital.
In 1796, a canal was installed next to the cemetery to help transport goods across the city and to drain the swamp around the main city. The canal eventually led to the development of the Treme neighborhood that the cemetery is located in.
Saint Louis No. 1 cemetery is a maze of tombs and aisles located in one city block of space between Basin and St. Louis Streets. The earlier burial tombs appear to have initially occurred below-ground or in low, quasi-above ground tombs, which is why the cemetery contains a haphazard layout. As space became limited, existing burial tombs and sites were added to create burial vaults while still retaining the original tomb footprints.
Now, why are New Orleans cemeteries above ground? Because the city of New Orleans is located below sea-level and the water table is high. Obviously you can’t bury a coffin in the ground with a high water table because the coffin will float to the top! The early settlers tried boring holes in the bottom of the coffins and also placing rocks in and on top of the coffins in attempt to keep them underground. It didn’t work, so the settlers decided on above-ground tombs.
In the 1820s the city of New Orleans and the Church consecrated St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 and later on St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. As the city grew around Cemetery No. 1, it became smaller in size. In 1898, “Storyville” was created in the 16 square blocks that included the cemetery. This “red light district” lasted until 1917, when the US Navy closed it. Shortly after the closure of “Storyville,” significant changes started to take place in the area surrounding the cemetery.
The canal was filled in by 1939 and construction on the Municipal Auditorium began. In the 1940s, the Iberville Housing Project was built. The housing project is currently being
demolished today. The neighborhood continued to decline with the construction of Interstate 10, which led to a dangerous reputation for the neighborhood. As a result of the reputation, many tomb owners (the alive ones!), families, and locals stayed away from the cemetery causing major neglect and overgrown.
In recent years, the cemetery has undergone some repairs and has become a top tourist attraction for the city. The cemetery is open Monday through Friday from 9am to 3pm and Sundays from 9am and 12pm. It was closed on my first attempt to see the cemetery, but I returned the next day after lunch to explore and photograph the cemetery. I’ll be honest, I’m not a huge fan of cemeteries. There is something about them that creep me out, but they also fascinate me in their history and beauty. Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 certainly didn’t disappoint either! You can either explore the cemetery on your own like I did or take a tour with Save Our Cemeteries.
I loved the juxtaposition of the old brick tombs with the newer cement or marble tombs. The cemetery truly is a maze of tombs and each bend of the path offers new surprises. Some tombs are deteriorating rapidly, while others have been restored to their former glories by family members. I was extremely surprised to see trinkets and/trash surrounding some tombs. I came across a few tombs covered in the “XXX” markings. This left me wondering why. Occasionally I would run into a tour group and I would hang out back listening to what the tour guide had to say. I learned a bit about the Protestant section of cemetery from one tour guide. The famous architect and engineer, Benjamin Latrobe, is buried in the Protestant section after dying of yellow fever in 1820 while working on New Orleans water works projects. Latrobe has been called the “Father of American Architecture” because he designed the original Capitol building in Washington DC and the Old Baltimore Cathedral or Baltimore Basilica. His son Henry came to New Orleans after his father’s death to finish the project. He, too, died of yellow fever three years later and is buried next to his father in Saint Louis.
I ran into quite a large tour group around Marie Laveau’s tomb. Her tomb was covered in the “XXX” markings as well as had small trinkets scattered around the bottom of the tomb. I really wanted to snap some photos of this unique tomb so I stuck around and listened to the tour guide. The story he told was quite interesting and I was finally able to understand the “XXX” marking. Marie Laveau was a Louisiana Creole Voodoo practitioner who lived in New Orleans from 1801-1881. It is believed that Marie is buried in plot 347 (the Glapion family crypt) of Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1. Legend has it that locals use to come to her tomb to ask Marie to grant them a wish. In the late 1800s and early 1900s many people could not write their name, so they just wrote an “X.” Locals (and now tourists) would ask Marie to grant them a wish by drawing an “X” on her tomb, turning around three times, knocking on the tomb, and then yelling out their wish to Marie. If the wish was granted, the person would return back to the grave, circle their “X” and leave Marie an offering, hence the various trinkets scattered about her tomb.
I also heard the tour guide say that many of the tombs are actual empty today, partly because of the deterioration of many of the older tombs. Some tombs are still in use or will be in use once their owner dies. Apparently, in 2010 Nicholas Cage purchased a pyramid crypt to be his final resting spot. If you have time between partying on Bourbon Street and eating Beignets I highly recommend a visit to Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1. I only wish I had more time to explore Cemeteries No. 2 and No. 3. However, I know someday I will be back to the Big Easy.