Off the Beaten Path
Join me on an adventure. Where will we go today?
With over 20 cemeteries in New Orleans, I was intrigued and recently took an evening bus tour to six of the cemeteries. The next day, I walked around the outskirts of several others, as most there are gated and require an admission fee. New Orleans fuels my imagination with a history of pirates, horrific murders, devastating fires and hurricanes, plagues, and culture of decadence. Having traveled to New Orleans many times, the cemetery tour was on my checklist of things to do. I will save Mardi Gras experiences and my airboat gator hunt stories for another time.
Everywhere I looked, I saw a cemetery. The gorgeous carved marble mausoleums were in the majority above ground. The St. Louis Cemetary #1 is on the National Register of Historic Places. I listened to many stories from my tour guide and decided to research them myself. Founded by the French, the Spanish were given this land in exchange for war debt. The Spanish returned it to the French, who turned and sold it to the United States in Louisiana Purchase. The US wanted more land, and Napolean needed money. The large arched doorways and decorative ironwork in the French Quarter are Spanish. A fire destroyed French architecture, so the Spanish rebuilt it in their style. All these years, I thought the wrought iron railings were French. The French Quarter features Spanish Architecture and is the highest point in New Orleans. It rarely floods.
Built on a bayou, this marshy land under sea level made digging for a grave impossible. People kept hitting the water table. The only building above ground is practical for most of the area graves. Jacques Nicholas Bussiere de Pouilly carried notes from France's Pere Lachaise, Paris Cemetary. Many credit him with the ornate grave markings and carvings. Both the French and Spanish often buried their dead aboveground, carrying that cultural heritage to New Orleans. Any of these reasons would sufficiently explain the origin of the above-ground mausoleums.
As our tour guide told us, it appears that bodies are not embalmed in New Orleans, just refrigerated until time for burial. We saw dozens of family members entombed together. Within a few days after death, bodies are placed in oven-like structures. The hot, subtropical heat in New Orleans vaporizes the body to bones and bone fragments in just one year. After a year, the tomb opened. The remains are swept into a bag, then placed at the tomb's bottom. If more than one family member dies within a year, they are held in the wall around the cemetery until the year ends and may join their family member. One cemetery holds thousands of remains as each tomb may have dozens of one family.
We were often cautioned not to go into the cemeteries by ourselves, day or night. Pirates still live today. Many required a fee just to enter. Family members kept most of the tombs, and if no one remained, the tombs fell into disrepair. A walking tour starts at $27 with a small group and a guide. We took a bus tour for $55 each that took us through 6 cemeteries. It was worth the money. We took many pictures, but nothing supernatural was observed or filmed in our small group. A woman in another group caught a reflection on a grave marker beside her. Someone else caught a small ball of light in a dark part of the cemetery that had no light source in a potter’s field next to one of the original charity hospitals. The field was for orphans or poor people who had no one to claim their bodies after death.
No matter if you are intrigued by the supernatural, want to have a ghost hunt, or just enjoy sculpture and friezes, I recommend you take an excursion through New Orleans cemeteries.