One of the most interesting and unique aspects of New Orleans is that they can’t actually bury their dead. Because they’re so far below sea level, the bodies, if buried, would sooner or later all emerge from the swampy soil, so instead, they bury those lost above ground in what they call “cities of the dead.”
As I’ve said in previous posts, the ghost tour was what originally drew my friend and me to New Orleans for our girls’ trip destination this year, and a close second was the idea of exploring NO’s cemeteries at night. Alas, you actually can’t get into most of their cemeteries after the sun has gone down, largely because vandals took to wreaking havoc on what should be places of rest for strangers’ loved ones. Which was kind of a bummer, because let’s be real, cemeteries, while always interesting (in my opinion, at least), are lent an added layer of mystery under the cover of darkness.
But in fact, New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery I cannot be accessed without a guide (it’s surrounded on all four sides by a wall, into which remains are also stored). We thought briefly of going to St. Louis Cemetery II, which is not as famous and doesn’t require a guide, but reviews of the area didn’t exactly give us warm fuzzies. So, in the end, we opted for a one-hour walking tour of Louis I, the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, and home to voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s remains.
The day was blazing right off the bat. It was in the mid-90s by 10 o’clock, and there is very little shade in the cemetery. But our guide was just lovely; in addition to being extremely informative about the cemetery, she lent me her fan, which was an absolute godsend.
We learned about the different kind of tombs, from condos (tombs that are four or five ‘stories’ tall, with a story for each family member) to houses (a ‘coffee table’ resides in the center, and the bones are ground into dust and swept into troughs on either side, along with the ashes of that person and other family members). Most of the tombs in Louis I are from the 18th and 19th centuries, though Nicolas Cage’s future resting place is there, in the shape of a pyramid.
Speaking of Nicolas Cage…there’s a story about the crumbling tomb that resides to the left of his pristine, snow-white Atlas Obscura: There’s a party scene from Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider that was shot in Louis I Cemetery. From what we were told, it’s trippy as hell, an out-of-control party, and one of the extras decided it would be funny to crawl into the open ‘story’ of one of the tombs, where he got stuck and promptly passed out. No one was sure if he was alive or dead, so they tied a bell to his toe (a system they used in the olden days to determine if someone was buried alive—true story) and stationed someone in front of the tomb for several days; if I remember correctly (feel free to correct me), the man remained in that tomb for four days, beneath the blazing New Orleans sun, before his toe finally wiggled, and they removed the large man from the tomb. Crazy, right?
We did a one-hour tour, which, in my opinion, was plenty (it’s a very small cemetery), though they also offer two-hour tours. Ever since the hubs and I stumbled upon a random and super-old cemetery in the Swiss countryside, I’ve found cemeteries to be fascinating; normally, I’m happy just to wander and study all of the tombs, spinning stories about the people who rest there, but I will say in this case I’m glad that we had a guide. Learning about the various types of tombs and the stories of some of the famous people interned there definitely lent some valuable and interesting context to the experience. I highly recommend doing the St. Louis I Cemetery Walking Tour when you’re in New Orleans!
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