In a city that’s 300 years old, you find lots of cemeteries. And for New Orleans, its unique above-ground tombs are a top tourist attraction.
The cemeteries here carry the nickname “cities of the dead.” Here, a final resting place can be built of granite, brick or marble, enclosed by an iron fence. Some tombs tower above a crowded landscape of burial vaults and family monuments.
“Our oldest cemetery and the oldest in New Orleans is St. Louis No. 1 over on Basin Street from 1789,” said Sherri Peppo with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
And as the city grew, so did its cemeteries, with St. Louis No. 2 opening in 1823 and St. Louis No. 3 in 1854. With soil too wet for below-ground burials and land in short supply, the above-ground tombs are re-usable.
“If a family has a tomb like this, you usually have an upper vault and a lower vault, and so each vault is used and then when we go back into reuse it,” Peppo said. “That casket is disposed of, and the remains are place into a body bag and placed back into the vault with the new casket coming in.”
These cemeteries are owned by the Catholic Church. In the 1970s with some of the wall vaults crumbling and threatened with demolition, a group called Save Our Cemeteries began its work to preserve these unique burial places.
“In the mid-1800, especially the French population here, they wanted stylish tombs like the ones in Pere Lachaise in Paris,” said Amanda Walker with Save Our Cemeteries. “I particularly like a St. Louis No 2 because it's an antebellum-era cemetery, so you see a lot of this beautiful plaster work, iron work marble. It’s just a little more elaborate.”
Mcnamara: “It’s too bad that you can’t see the histories that go along with some of the names that you find here, like this guy, right?”
Walker: “Yeah, this is the tomb of Ernest Bellocq. Most people associate him with Storyville because he took pictures of the girls.”
Mcnamara: “So much of New Orleans’ history is buried here.
Walker: “Dominique You, who was a sidekick of Jean Lafitte, he is there. You have Ernie K-Doe, the “Mother-in-Law” guy, emperor of the universe. He's buried there.”
The oldest cemetery, St. Louis No. 1, has limited access for family members with passes and registered tours.
“The tour operators help us to see who's coming in with their groups to make sure that they're not touching the old plaster, not trying to break open the bricks on the front of the tomb, not littering,” Peppo said.
But the other cemeteries are open during the day. You can explore the elaborate memorials, find familiar names, take photographs or a just peaceful stroll in a place that’s walled-off from a busy city.
“They are like outdoor museums, and they deserve respect just like any other cultural institution, and they need to be saved,” Walker said.
These “cities of the dead” can tell us so much about what we value in our lives.