Cities of the Dead: New Orleans Cemeteries

Photo courtesy of Terri Stewart via flickr.com

Photo courtesy of Terri Stewart via flickr.com

Laughter and energy permeates the air in the French Quarter of New Orleans, but something much somber lurks in its cemeteries. Rich with history and legends, the centuries-old cemeteries hold some of New Orleans’s most astonishing tales, deepest chronicles and best-kept secrets.

Adorned with stone, brick, and iron, these “cities” are like none you’ve seen before. Many tombs, crypts and vaults cascade down New Orleans cemeteries, appearing like small houses and buildings inhabited by the departed. Most cemeteries keep their occupants underground; however as a part of French and Spanish traditions, the deceased lay in tombs. Large white and sun-bleached or brick tombs and vaults span across a square-block piece of land. In place of grass is a pavement walk way surrounded by cast-iron fencing. Each tomb or vault takes on its own unique style, some being “stepped” tombs, some vaults holding several of the deceased and appearing like small houses or mausoleums. Sculptures decorate several tombs in religious or spiritual fashion. Rising water tables made way for the creation of these city-like cemeteries, although the jury is still out on whether this is the sole purpose for the above-ground burials.

Three of the oldest cemeteries in the French Quarter belong to the Saint Louis Cemeteries 1, 2 and 3. With the first being built in 1789, these Roman-Catholic cemeteries house some of the most notorious figures in New Orleans history. Etienne de Boré, the first mayor of New Orleans, can be found in Saint Louis 1 along with Homer Plessy, the plaintiff from 1896’s Plessy vs. Ferguson, Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, New Orleans’s first black mayor, and the infamous Marie Laveau, “Voodoo Queen” and marvel of New Orleans inhabitants.

Saint Louis One’s successors, numbers Two and Three, hold just as much history and distinction. Saint Louis 2 exists approximately three blocks away from Saint Louis 1. At the time of its creation in 1823, city officials believed cemeteries carried greater risk for disease. As a result they decided to build Saint Louis 2 farther away from the French Quarter.

Jazz musicians, civil war heroes, and pirates all lay within the confines of Saint Louis 2’s walls. Saint Louis 3, opened in 1854, stands as the newest of the three and most elaborately built.

Located in the heart of the Garden District sits the Lafayette Cemetery, one of New Orleans’s oldest standing municipal cemeteries. Established in 1833, the cemetery accommodates a majority of sufferers who expired as a result of the yellow fever epidemic. Prominent figures buried here include Harry T. Hays, a confederate general as well as several other Civil War veterans and Henry Watkins Allen, a Civil-War era Governor.

Like the Saint Louis cemeteries, Lafayette cemetery consists mainly of vaults and tombs of varying styles and size; some including sculptures and plaques and some built with brick or concrete. Cast iron fencing frames several tombs and the entire cemetery as a whole.

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