I love New Orleans. And cliché or not, I love it for all the things it’s built its reputation on: good food, great music, and death. Visitors usually go for the first two, but many find themselves oddly drawn to the third in little ways – past life tarot readings, voodoo customs, and the city’s cemeteries, many of which are now now popular ‘tourist’ attractions. The people of the crescent city have developed unique rituals that are both deeply fascinating and incredibly beautiful around the celebration of life and death.
As you walk through the cemeteries, you’ll notice that burials are above ground, not underground, as you might be used to – this practice was influenced by the occupying Spaniards from the late 1700s. And burials are much more of a family affair than you might be used to; tombs typically hold a few coffin-sized vaults, with a space underneath. The idea is that a coffin is interred in a vault following a funeral service, and left there until another family member passes away. Tradition dictates that a coffin should not be disturbed for at least one year and one day, and following that minimum time period, the coffin is removed by cemetery officials, with the human remains taken and placed in that below ground space, making room for the next burial. If all of this interests you more than it horrifies you, I’d highly recommend Mary LaCoste’s book, Death Embraced.
With around three dozen cemeteries in the city, several famous burials (including a pyramidal tomb that Nicolas Cage has already prepared for himself), and settings that might look familiar from some of your favourite movies and TV shows (like American Horror Story, The Originals and NCIS New Orleans), there are plenty of opportunities for visitors to take a little look for themselves at how and why death seems to be somewhat different there.
— corner City Park Avenue and Canal Street
Built by the Firemen’s Charitable and Benevolent Association, it has become well-known for the giant bronze elk statue that sits proudly on top of mausoleum for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge 30.
— 635 City Park Avenue
A potters’ burial ground full of homemade grave sites, this is one of the very few cemeteries in the city where the dead are still interred below ground.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
— 1400 Washington Avenue
At the time of writing this post, the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 had been temporarily closed for cleaning and restoration, but those of you who are fans of The Vampire Diaries spinoff, The Originals, might recognize this site from the many scenes shot there.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 2
— 2200 Washington Avenue
This cemetery features a few society tombs, such as the African-American Labor Society – these are basically super-sized versions of the family tombs, built to house, well, members of a certain society.
— 5100 Ponchatrain Boulevard
You’ll find lots of graves that will interest Civil War buffs here, as well as some interesting minor ‘celebrities,’ like Marie Curie’s daughter (Eva) and the guy who created the chain Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits.
St Louis Cemetery No. 1
— 425 Basin Street
The oldest and most famous of all the city’s cemeteries, it has now gotten so popular that you have to pay an entry fee to visit! But it is a beautiful cemetery, and home to some bigger names like the Voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau, civil rights warrior Homer Plessy, and, eventually, Nicolas Cage, who has already set up his pyramidal tomb there.
St Louis Cemetery No. 2
— 320 N. Claiborne Avenue
Pushed a little further out of the city centre, this cemetery is important to the Creole community of New Orleans, as the final resting place of many of the city’s 19th century ‘free people of color.’ It’s only a few minutes away from St Louis No. 1, and as a bonus, it doesn’t attract an entry fee!
St Louis Cemetery No. 3
— 3421 Esplanade Avenue
Located down near Bayou St. John, this cemetery was originally designed to take victims of the yellow fever epidemic of the 1800s – it was hoped that burying them out in the “back-of-town” rather than closer to the city centre would put residents’ minds at ease.
St Patrick Cemetery No. 1
— 5040 Canal Street
The Irish famine in the 1809s saw a lot of Irish immigration, and a good amount actually ended up in New Orleans; unfortunately, a lot of those who escaped the famine in Ireland became victims of yellow fever in their new city. St Patrick No. 1 is where many of those immigrants were laid to rest.
St Patrick Cemetery No. 2 and No. 3
— 142-143 City Park Avenue
This section of St. Patrick’s was designed in a more organised way, after the initial overwhelming amount of Irish bodies that went to No. 1. It also became a burial ground for more European immigrants.
St. Roch Cemeteries No. 1 and No. 2
— 1725 St. Roch Avenue
It’s a little out of the way so it doesn’t get many visitors, but the St. Roch Cemetery group is well worth a visit. Dedicated to the patron saint of plague victims, there’s also a very interesting chapel located on the grounds that makes this one of the most unique cemeteries around.