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  • Writer's pictureTrevor McQueen

A History of New Orleans Cemeteries

Italian Benevolent Society Tomb

"The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds - the cemeteries - and they're a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchers - palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay - ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who've died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn't pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time."

- Bob Dylan

Above is a picture of the Italian Benevolent Society Tomb. This historic structure can be found in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, and was featured in Easy Rider (1969). Believe it or not, this 20 by 20 foot tomb is capable of housing an estimated 2000+ bodies. How on Earth can so many people fit into such a finite space?

New Orleans' cemeteries are one of a kind. Let's start with the oldest extant cemetery in the city, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The Great Fire of New Orleans in 1788 wiped out 856 of the existing 1,100 buildings. That's 77% of the French Quarter! The Spanish controlled New Orleans at this time and saw its destruction as an opportunity. They replaced the old French colonial buildings with the architecture we have today, often referred to as Creole architecture, Spanish colonial architecture, or Caribbean architecture.

These renovations to New Orleans also applied to our cemeteries.

Because of the death toll from the Great Fire, as well as flooding and diseases, New Orleans began the construction of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 that year. Once again, European influence found its way into the architecture. Upon completion in 1789, St. Louis Cemetery was filled with above ground tombs, a specific burial style still found across many European countries today.

So, how we can fit so many remains into such small spaces? The following information is not for the faint of heart. Have you ever visited New Orleans in August? The humidity can raise temperatures above 100 degrees. Now imagine how hot it gets inside the tombs. Temperatures go even higher, sometimes over 300 degrees! This intense heat causes accelerated decomposition. Bodies more or less cook in our tombs - hence the nickname "oven vaults".

Family tomb of Paul Morphy, New Orleans' own world chess champion!

Remains break down quickly. Today's city ordinance requires a 2 year waiting period before the family fan "cycle" remains, or in other words, make room for the next body. Imagine a family tomb as seen in the picture above. You can tell by the size of the slab that only 2 caskets can fit at a time. But when a third individual passes away and needs to be interred, how do we make enough room? First, the cemetery sextons take the oldest remains, which have now broken down to brittle bones and dust due to the accelerated decomposition from the heat, and place them into a burial bag. This bag is placed in a hollow area, called the "caveau", within and underneath the tomb. The casket is then disposed of, making room for the next individual to be laid to rest. This family tomb can house 30 individuals!

The tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orleans most famous Vodou practitioner

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is New Orleans' most popular cemetery. The oldest across the entire city, St. Louis No. 1 features remarkable people, such as Marie Laveau, Homer Plessy, Dr. John, and the future tomb of actor Nicholas Cage. Is this cemetery open to the public? Not really. You can find the details in this news article: The gist is in the follow quote from the article:

"A company named Cemetery Tours NOLA, owned by French Quarter hotelier Michael Valentino, will be the only operator allowed to offer tours of St. Louis No. 1, at prices higher than $20, following an agreement between Valentino and the archdiocese."

In short, you must buy your way in. But do not worry! There are cemeteries in New Orleans that are free to enter. You can find these at the corner of City Park Ave. and Canal St., including the St. Patrick Cemeteries, Charity Hospital Cemetery, and Cypress Grove. There is even a streetcar labeled "Cemeteries" that can drop you off there. Enjoy!

If you take our Movie and TV Show Tour, your guide would love to share more information about burials in New Orleans.

Questions or concerns? Feel free to comment below.

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