Cities of the Dead
The above-ground tombs in New Orleans cemeteries are often referred to as "cities of the dead." Enter the cemetery gates, and you will be greeted by rusty decorative ironwork and blinded by sun-bleached tombs. Crosses and statues jutting from tomb surfaces cast contrasting shadows, adding to the sense of mystery. Votive candles line tombs on holidays, reminding you that the dead have living relatives who still care.
New Orleans has always respected its dead, but this isn't the reason that our departed loved ones are interred above ground. Early settlers in the area struggled with different methods to bury the dead. Burial plots are shallow in New Orleans because the water table is very high. Dig a few feet down, and the grave becomes soggy, filling with water. The casket will literally float. You just can't keep a good person down! The early settlers tried placing stones in and on top of coffins to weigh them down and keep them underground. Unfortunately, after a rainstorm, the rising water table would literally pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. To this day, unpredictable flooding still lifts the occasional coffin out of the ground in areas above the water table, generally considered safe from flooding.
Another method was to bore holes in the coffins. This method also proved to be unsuitable. Eventually, New Orleans' graves were kept aboveground, following the Spanish custom of using vaults. The walls of some cemeteries here are made of economical vaults stacked on top of one another, while wealthier families could afford the larger, ornate tombs with crypts. Many family tombs look like miniature houses, complete with iron fences. The rows of tombs resemble streets--and this is why New Orleans burial plots quickly became known as cities of the dead.
Here is a question for you: how can you bury more than one family member in each vault? How can a tomb hold all of those coffins? According to a local ordinance, as long as the previously deceased family member has been dead for at least two years, the remains of that person can be moved to a specially made burial bag and placed at the side or back of the vault. The coffin is then destroyed, and the vault is now ready for a newly deceased family member. What happens if a family member dies within that two-year period? Generally, local cemeteries are equipped with temporary holding vaults, and the newly deceased family member is moved into his or her final resting place when two years have elapsed.
On your way into New Orleans from the airport, you'll catch a glimpse of the newer Metairie cemeteries. The city's older, more dilapidated cemeteries are St. Louis Nos. 1, 2 and 3, located near the French Quarter. The older cemeteries' paths are twisted; crumbled corners of tombs jut out, and dead ends add to each area's eerie atmosphere. Pirates, politicians (notice how those two go together?) and voodoo queens are buried in these cities. Explorers should take caution, though: the "cities of the dead" are alluring, but dangerous. Don't go there alone, but travel with a group or arrange to attend a tour. The narrow paths and freestanding tombs offer easy hiding places for muggers.
You will notice that flowers, votive candles and hoodoo money (coins exchanged for favors) have been left at many of the notable graves, particularly that of Marie Laveau, the notorious Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Some say that individuals still practice rituals at her grave. Local lore holds that visitors must turn around three times, either clockwise or counterclockwise; knock three times (sung to the Tony Orlando tune?); and make a wish (perhaps to win the lottery).
New Orleans has many different ways of honoring the lives of those who have died. One of the city's Catholic traditions is observed on Good Friday, when we celebrate the Stations of the Cross (in memory of Christ's suffering and crucifixion). Catholics walk a route of nine local churches, stopping to pray at each. The Stations of the Cross walk ends at St. Roch's Cemetery at 3:00 p.m., the hour of Christ's death. St. Roch lived during the Middle Ages, and worked with those suffering from the plague; the cemetery is named for him because of a pledge made by a priest who prayed to him during New Orleans' 1868 yellow fever crisis. Now, the location is a shrine, and Mass is said there on Monday mornings.
There are 42 cemeteries in the New Orleans area with many fascinating stories. Several companies conduct tours of the cemeteries; these tours are definitely unique, and are worth the memories!
To visit our most notable cemetery, featuring the tomb of Marie Laveau, we recommend the Cemetery/Gris Gris tour by Gray Line.
For a stop at one of our cemeteries as part of our larger city-wide tour, check out Gray Line's supercity tour!
If you're looking for an in depth understanding of New Orleans culture, including why we bury our dead above ground, take Machu Picchu's Cemetery Tour.