St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

The City of the Dead mimics the Streets of New Orleans

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans, Louisiana:  The first tour I signed up for was a tour that included the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.  I actually didn’t know there were 2 until I got there.  This shot is one of my favorites as it imitates the city itself with the variety of paint colors.  This is actually a point in the tour where our guide explained the differences between restoration and renovation.  The tombs seen in this photo have been restored, which costs more initially, but will hold up longer over time.  Renovated tombs typically use Portland Cement, the most common cement, however it’s not very conducive to water.  One has to wonder if the Catholic Diocese referenced a map when they made the decision to use Portland Cement when fixing the tombs in this landmark graveyard of the Crescent City, *cough* named for its crescent shape border along the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River.  Just sayin’.  It comes down to finances.  The materials for restoration are specific and meticulous, and can’t be purchased in bulk or slapped together by anyone with a rolling brush.  The cool thing is there is an organization that several of my guides discussed called Save Our Cemeteries, a group founded in the 70’s whose mission is in education of the architectural and historical value of the New Orleans’ cemeteries and they spend most of their raised monies on clean up and restoration.

There are several various kinds of burial in the cemeteries themselves.  Our guide noted 4 specific, but for the life of me I can only remember 3:  Step burials, Family tombs, and Social Graves.  Check out this post by Tess Conrad for additional photos and more burial examples of the NOLA graveyards.  There are quite a lot.

Example of a Step Burial

Some of the earlier graves looked like this, and could be used for families.  Similarly, the Jewish graves in New Orleans cemeteries resemble this, but the the middle is hollow and filled with dirt, so the body is placed in the earth.  Then it is covered in rocks and shells to weigh it down.  Tess’ post has photos of this.

A Family Tomb Marker

Family Tombs

Family tombs are the most common, though they range in size, some color, structure, and age.  It’s difficult to read, but the marker on the left was first used in 1837, and last used in 2004.  That’s pretty fascinating.

Typically a family tomb was just inherited of sorts.  Any new tombs or new use of family tombs now cost quite a bit over time, as the Church requires any new “inhabitants” to pay for perpetual care of the grave.  This allows the Church to keep any new graves within color guidelines (white) and pays for the cost of that Portland Cement when renovation is needed.

Many of you may be familiar with how the family tombs operate, but if you’re not, I’ll explain briefly.  When a family member died they were placed in a wooden coffin (still used today), and sealed up in the family crypt.  Depending on when the next family member passed away, they would remain there for at least a year.  If you were unfortunate enough to lose more than one family member in a year, you had to then rent a tomb to temporarily house the additional body until the year was up and the first body could be swept up and pushed back into the pit of the tomb.  Under each family tomb is a pit, and when the body had decomposed after a year, the bones were swept up (and now sealed in plastic bags for DNA purposes) and dropped into the pit, thereby creating space for the next family member.  Many tombs house up to 40 or more family members.  Some of the markers are funny, like a husband being buried with both his first and second wife in the same tomb.  Others are sad, you see families that lost several children.

The Italian Society Tomb

Lastly, you have society tombs.  If you couldn’t afford a family tomb, a cheaper way to be buried was as part of a society.  There are guilds, veteran, and artists society tombs.  This one is the Italian tomb, and coincidentally the film site of Peter Fonda’s acid trip in the movie Easy Rider.  It is because of that scene the Catholic Church forbid any other film crews inside the St. Louis cemetery.  Now, even documentaries, do their filming in the Lafayette Cemetery.

The St. Louis Cemetery is home to several noteworthy residents.  My two favorites being Homer Plessy (as in Plessy vs. Ferguson, “separate but equal” Supreme Court decision) and Marie Laveau, the noted “Queen of Voodoo.”

Homer Plessy

Marie Laveau

Everyone always wants to know what the X’s mean on Marie’s tomb, and according to our guide, they don’t mean a thing.  Leaving an offering is typical, but the triple X is just desecration of the grave.  I’m curious if anyone else went to New Orleans and heard different.  I know there’s superstitions online, but I’d like to know what another local says.  I was surprised to learn how closely Marie worked with the Catholic Church.  That was overall something really fascinating about this city, how 2 religions could impact one another so closely and thrive side by side.  Many voodoo gods have similar qualities to Catholic saints.  I bought Zora Neale Hurston’s book Tell My Horse inside a voodoo shop, so it’s on my reading list to learn more about the culture as it originates from Haiti and Jamaica.

The cemetery was full of history and culture.  It was overwhelming and peaceful to know you were surrounded by life stories inside those gates.  Anyone else felt that way when visiting a cemetery?  Or a church?  Or a new city?  Every place has a story, and I’m guessing there are many versions to tell in this place.

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16 responses

  1. Interesting post, Jess. I appreciate your snapshots to characterize your posts. I never understood the history behind family or society tombs till I read this. Now, I’m ready to head to the graveyard for some exploration. LOL

    1. There’s tons more to learn, but I’m certainly no expert. The guides in New Orleans all have to be certified by the State, so they’re the best experts. Several of mine belonged to the Save our Cemeteries organization, so you know they are passionate about their work, and I always think the best groups are ones that spend their time and money on education as well as the services they offer!

  2. Excellent pictures and “tour” Jess. The different types of graves are fascinating, especially the “first die, first buried” family boxes. Imagine to older members of the family taunting each other over who would get to inhabit the family grave and who would be interred in the “rental unit”. Has to be a story there.

    Hey, you didn’t bleed or require medical care in this post. Hope that is a trend 🙂

    1. My nose is healing quite nicely. Several of my team members told me so when I came back to work. LOL.

  3. Fascinating post. I never knew any of this historical information about graves and family burial sites, society burial sites. Wow! Thanks for the enlightenment.
    Patti

    1. Yah, it’s really interesting and the architecture alone makes it appealing too. There are so many varying cultural influences combined in one place. There are spanish and french styles. It’s amazing how something began as an alternative to the “soil” types (sand) for burial methods, and became a national landmark.

  4. First off, Portland cement – whoo-hoo! Portland rocks!

    Second, I’ve heard about the cool New Orleans cemeteries thanks to friends down there who know of my fascination with the dead. So jealous you got to go here! And I know exactly what you mean about that peaceful feeling that you find in cemeteries. It’s oddly comforting to walk through them; makes me feel like, if all these people got through their death experiences, then I will too when the time comes. Let’s just hope that time is far off in the future!

    1. Well, you’re comment took a morbid little twist didn’t it? You better not go anywhere soon, I demand more blogging and your name in print before that time comes!

      The cemeteries were really interesting, and just the architecture, old and new, was so fascinating and beautiful. You’ll have to go see your friends and check it out. Hey, ask them what they know about the X’s on Marie Laveau’s tomb for me? I’m just curious about all the legends.

  5. Ah, so cool! I’m leaving for New Orleans in three days. I’ll add this to our list of things to do.

    1. Oooh, have fun! Are you staying near the French Quarter? A lot of the hotels down there have the beautiful balconies and galleys. People were throwing mardi gras beads off them sometimes. If you are staying there, or even if you’re not, you should absolutely do the ghost tour in the quarter. It’s more of a history tour than anything, but several hotels are on it. Fun, educational, and spooky! My kinda tour! Have fun!

  6. Are you scouting the cemeteries for Halloween? 😉 I didn’t know that New Orleans is famous for its tombs.

    1. Oh man, I think it’d be awesome to go in October, cause the weather would be cooler-ha!, but because they said Halloween lasts all month long! And people flock to the cemeteries, doing tours, paying homage to families, celebrating the dead. I think it would be fascinating to see a jazz funeral. A jazz funeral is more of a celebration for someone. After the initial funeral service, there are bands and parades and parties and it’s about celebrating life. There a couple of books I found in the shops there with photography from jazz funerals, very cool.

  7. Since I’m into family history, I really like cemeteries. However, I intend to be cremated, because I don’t want to be taking up space in perfectly good soil when I’m dead…

    Wendy

    1. Well, in these tombs, you’ll just be swept up, bagged, then pushed to the back of the tomb until you fall into the pit with all your ancestors’ bones. And they don’t have soil, it’s all sand. Charming, don’t you think? Just clarifying, wanted you to have ALL the facts when making lease agreements for the afterlife, cause there is just NO getting out of these contracts! I mean I hear the landlord’s a real b*tch. 😉

  8. […] In my previous post about the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, I explained about the four kinds of tombs located in the graveyards and showed photos.  You can check out the history about that graveyard here. […]

  9. […] I find cemeteries fascinating. So does Jess Witkins over at The Happiness Project. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 […]

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