Sunday, April 13, 2014

The "Cities of the Dead" in New Orleans

You can't visit New Orleans without visiting one of her many cemeteries.  These are unique due to the fact that the dead are buried in vaults.  This is because on average, New Orleans is between one to two feet below sea level.  Early settlers tried burying the dead and placing stones in and on top of the casket however when it rained it was not unusual for the rocks to come loose and the casket to literally pop up to the surface. Not nice! Following the Spanish custom, vaults were constructed and this method has been used ever since. These are family owned vaults that go back generations.  How do they fit all the bodies in you might ask?  Okay you asked for it...this is a bit gruesome.  Bodies are laid out in the vault in a wooden  box.  New Orleans summers are stifling with heat and humidity and inside the vault it can reach 300 degrees fahrenheit.  Bodies disintegrate quickly in that kind of heat and all that is left are bones, ashes and rotting wood.  Remains may lay there undisturbed for years however if the space is needed the body remains are swept to the back of the vault where they fall to the side and back.  It is the law a body must be undisturbed for one year and a day.  What happens if space is needed before that time?  There is a temporary "holding area" in most cemeteries for this situation. 

There are many cemeteries in the city to visit:  St. Louis I, St. Louis II, St. Louis III (notice a theme here?)and Layfayette which is in the Garden District,...these are the most popular ones for tourists.    We had tried to visit Lafayette in the Garden District however it had closed at 3 p.m. (3 p.m.???  Crazy!)  Instead we took a guided walking tour of St. Louis cemetery near the French Quarter.  It was constructed in 1789 and most of the vaults were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries.  As in all the cemeteries there are "streets" on a grid which lgives them the name "Cities of the dead". 


The tomb of the infamous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau...the xxx's have been put there as wishes..if your wish comes true you go back and circle them.  As the guide says...none have circles.... 
Our tour guide
Close up of Marie Latreau's tomb
This pyramid monstrosity is the future "home" of Nicholas Cage.  Yep, he had this built for his remains...really fits in doesn't it?  Money talks I guess. 

One thing that tourists are constantly reminded of is NOT to visit these cemeteries alone - especially the St Louis cemetery we have just visited.  Muggers can easily hide behind the tombs.  I don't think it is as bad as it was however due to the destruction of the notorious Iberville housing project nearby.  Still I personally would never walk through this cemetery on my own - I would only go in a group. 

On this last trip we walked by the St Louis 3 cemetery near the end of the New Orleans half marathon which terminated in City Park.  This cemetery was built in 1854 on the site of an old Leper colony.  After the yellow fever outbreak in 1853 the city was in need of another cemetery.  It was originally known as the Bayou Cemetery as it is near Bayou St. John.   Even though I was flagging I did summon the strength to take two quick pictures as I staggered by.

I changed this way to black and white for a more dramatic effect

If you ever go to New Orleans (and you KNOW you should..) taking a tour of a local cemetery is a must. 

1 comment:

Sammi Egan said...

Wow, talk about dark tourism! Fascinating, though.... Another thing to see in New Orleans

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