Cities of the Dead

St Louis No. 1 1

No trip to New Orleans would be complete without a tour of one of the many cemeteries for which the area is so well known and which, in many cases, have a history equally if not more thrilling than the rest of the city.

The oldest surviving cemetery and one synonymous with hauntings and the supernatural is St Louis Cemetery No. 1, which sits across from the French Quarter, on the Rampart Street side. The cemetery is no longer open to individual tourists, due to issues around crime and the desecration of the graves, as such, only those on organised tours may enter. There are actually guards posted at the entrance who will do a head count of each group on the way in and on the way out to avoid people straggling or trying to remain behind and there are strict rules and fines involved for anyone caught taking things from the graves or marking them.

Part of the allure of the cemetery is the unique style of the monuments which springs from traditional burial customs. As one tour guide pointed out, it is no longer necessary to bury people above ground, modern science and technology has allowed people to be buried in the tradition style if they so choose, it is really more tradition that keeps the above ground vault or ‘oven vault’ popular in the city. From an artistic or architectural viewpoint, the graves add an interesting dimension to the city, in fact they are one of its most recognisable features and their opulence only adds to the already present supernatural mystique for which New Orleans in general and the French Quarter in particular is so well known.

St Louis No. 1 2

The use of the above ground vaults came about for several reasons. In the early days of settlement, issues with the water table being so high meant that the slightest bit of rain would bring the coffins to the surface of the grave or wash them out of it entirely. Many tour guides take a strange delight in describing instances of coffins floating down the street after prolonged periods or rain. As a solution the oven tomb was instituted and became not only a more effective means of keeping the dead entombed but went some way to solving the problem of overcrowding within the cemeteries.

Yellow Fever used to kill thousands of people within the city every summer and often times these mass waves of death would produce bodies faster than they could be buried. As such, corpses were piled high in the streets (creating more outbreaks of the disease) before being carted down to the river or disposed of in mass burials. As many tour guides are also fond of mentioning, it’s impossible to walk anywhere in the quarter without stepping on the dead or on a place where someone once died. The burden of the dead on the city meant that ultimately an effective means of burial had to be found. Cemeteries were overcrowded, the disposal of bodies into the river often resulted in them washing back up into the city, again causing new outbreaks of illness and Catholic doctrine forbade the burning of corpses. The implementation of oven vault was a convenient solution to the issue and is thought to have been modelled on burial traditions from the Mediterranean.

The concept of the oven vault is a simple one. Upon death, the body is deposited into the vault and the front panel is sealed over for 1 year and 1 day (which was believed to be the amount of time that Yellow Fever was contagious). After this point the cemetery sexton opens the vault and removes the deceased from their coffin (which is then burnt) and places their remains into a bag. The bag is them placed back into the vault. Depending on the style, remains might be packed around each other or may be broken up and deposited into the bottom chamber of the tomb. This allows for multiple generations of family to share the same burial space.

Oven Vaults

It’s common folklore that several well known terms associated with death came into being in New Orleans due to their burial practices. The terms ‘wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole’ and ‘getting the shaft’ are reported to relate to the job of the sexton who would clear the burial vaults of the deceased – which was an understandably unpleasant job. Similarly ‘saved by the bell’ and ‘dead ringer’ and ‘night watch’ are thought to have come from incidences of people being buried alive and from the nuns who would patrol cemeteries at night to listen for the ringing of bells within the tomb. There is nothing to support the idea that these terms were born in New Orleans, despite the claims of tourist books and tour guides alike, certainly several relate to vampire custom and superstition, which finds it’s infancy in Europe and European folklore.

Nicholas Cage is the most recent celebrity to buy a plot in at St. Louis no 1, having constructed himself an elaborate crypt shaped like a pyramid which has become very unpopular among the local populace, who see the design as a blight on the cemetery. This is not the first time Cage has attracted the ire of locals, but details in his other shenanigans will have to wait.

Nicholas Cage Tomb

Marie Laveau is also rumoured to be buried in St. Louis No. 1, but no one can say with certainty where. There are two possible places, each of which suffers differing degrees of vandalism from eager tourists who are keen to try and entice the Voodoo Queen to do their bidding. Desecration of her tomb has played a large role in the new security measure at the site. Sadly desecration is ongoing.At one point one of the possible tombs was painted pink by a cemetery intruder. This caused a huge problem, although when the paint was removed it did highlight the effect that the elements have played in the disintegration of the older vaults, which has prompted local groups to take action in the preservation of these landmarks.

Laveau Tomb 1

(One of the possible Lavaeu tombs. Note the XXX symbols scrawled across it. While superstition dictates that this is a means of attracting the spirit of Laveau when asking for her assistance, it is actually a sign that your wish was granted. Probably not a good idea to mark the tomb in any case, as Voodoo belief, that that of most religions, sees it as a desecration).

Vampires. You couldn’t have New Orleans without them and the cemetery seems like the perfect place to begin with Vampire Legends…and it is, but not today…

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