In the hot, humid climate of southern Louisiana, where the water table lies just a few feet below the surface, people cannot be buried. Some other method had to be devised.
The body of the deceased is set inside the stone monument, where it decomposes in the heat. In accordance with rules stipulated by the Catholic Church, they lie there for a year and a day. Then, the monument is opened, and the remains are tossed into the pit below. This way, room is available for the next one. If the next member of that family dies before the place is available, then the body is placed into one of the temporary spots on the side.
Families purchase these, and use them for generation after generation. The remains of dozens may be inside one of these.
In a city below sea level, with a very high water table, cemeteries are unique. As buried wooden coffins will frequently float to the surface, cemeteries were designed with above ground stone and marble tombs. Some of the grave sites in the old cemeteries are spectacular.
Even modern cemeteries are built above ground in the city. In the Lower 9th Ward, I drove by an above ground cemetery where it looked like at least 25% of the tombs had broken open and the coffins had floated away. I guess you can't plan for everything.
An organization dedicated to "preserving, protecting, and and promoting the historic cemeteries of New Orleans," is Save Our Cemeteries, Inc. They operate some great tours but on a limited basis. No reservations are accepted and space is limited, so it's first come, first served !! Get there early !!
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Founded in 1789, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the final resting place of some of the most notable citizens of New Orleans. You will see the famed "oven wall vaults" where the notorious "Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau" is enterred. Etienne de Bore, pioneer in sugar development; Daniel Clark, financial supporter of the American Revolution; Paul Morphy, former world Chess Champion are but a few of the local giants buried here. New Orleans' French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants are buried in lavish crypts here and there are many stories to be told.
Meet your guide on SUNDAYS ONLY at the Royal Blend Coffee Shop at 621 Royal Street. Tours are 1.5 hours. "Suggested " donations are $12 adult; $10 Senior Citizens; $6 students 12 -18; FREE children under 12.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
The younger Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 founded in 1833, has been in continuous use ever since. Located in the beautiful "Garden District" and was once part & parcel of Livaudais Plantation, this cemetery was layed out so as to accommodate funeral processions by intersecting avenues, and was the city's first "planned" cemetery. Its history, location and architectural significance led to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tours leave from the cemetery's main gate on the 1400 block of Washingon Avenue (15 minute street car ride from Canal Street ~ St. Charles Avnue Line) on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, & Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. sharp! Also no reservations; space limited. Tours are 1 hr. Suggested donation is $6 adults; $5 Senior Citizens & students; children 12 and under FREE.
"ToMb iT mAY cONceRn"
New Orleans inhabitants often refer to their cemeteries as Cities of the Dead. They are quite unique but not totally uncommon. They are definitely an important part of New Orleans' heritage and are architecturally and historically significant as indicated by the fact that at least 2 of the oldest, and most notable have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This cemeteries consists of crypts above ground because New Orleans lies below sea level...digging graves in this area would mean striking water and floating caskets and hence, crypts are naturally above ground structures. These crypts, dating to the 18th, 19th and early 20th century, are the resting places of some of quite famous people.
See more details in Part II.
I visited NOLA a few years back and was warned against walking through the cemeteries without a group. My best friend and I went alone (both young chicks) to St Louis #2, supposedly the worst to visit. I can't even find pictures of St Louis #2! lol
I have to be honest with you, I don't see what all the fuss was about. We went during the day, and aside from the fact that it's situated next to project homes, I can't see what upsets people so much. The people were friendly and I felt perfectly safe. In fact, I felt safer there than I do in Indianapolis...lol.
Maybe we got lucky, or maybe it's just hype from people that fear poverty.
I had heard about the above ground burials that were flooded and so wanted to see what happened. Most cemetaries appeared to have survived the flooding due to the heavy materials of which they are made. A few tombs need some expensive repair though. I didn't have time to survey the entire graveyard, but it appeared to be intact after Katrina
Above ground 'burials' are done in many places where there is a high water table and below sea level New Orleans is one of those places. How intrigued my dad was with the cemeteries in 1950!!
While most people seem to visit the older St. Louis #1 or one of the Metarie cemeteries, our city tour took us to St. Louis #3 - conveniently located next to the racetrack and Bayou St. John. City Park, one of the country’s largest urban parks is also nearby. In 1854 was built on a former graveyard for lepers because of a desperate need for burial space after the most ravaging outbreak of yellow fever in New Orleans history.
Since the cemetery’s opening, it has been used steadily. Today, it has over four hundred interments a year and a waiting list to purchase burial space. Even though burial plots are crowded together, broad main aisles give the cemetery a wide-open appearance. The main aisles are named after saints; the cross aisles are named for bishops and archbishops.
The cemetery contains several tombs for members of fraternal societies, vaults for priests and nuns, and tombs for many historic and prominent personages in New Orleans history including
* Estopinal, Albert b. January 30, 1845 d. April 28, 1919 US Congressman, elected to represent Louisiana's 1st District in the United States House of Representatives, serving from 1908 until his death in 1919. Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana from 1900 to 1904. He served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
* Millet, Clarence b. March 25, 1897 d. August 23, 1959 a noted Artist. A self-taught painter, his works have been displayed at the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and the Art Institute of Chicago.
* Nash, Charles Edmund b. May 23, 1844 d. June 21, 1913 A US Congressman elected to represent Louisiana's 6th District in the United States House of Representatives, serving from 1875 to 1877. He served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 8:00 A.M.; Sun. & Holidays, 8:00 A.M.-4:00 P.M.
A bit creepy at first glance, but once you are inside it is well worth any trepidations you may have. New Oreans is below sea level, so all the graves are above ground, and since space was minimal, many members of the same family are put inside the same grave. The cemeteries were not kept up by the city, so many of the graves are in poor condition. Do take caution, as this cemetery can be dangerous after dark.
This famiy tomb is now empty. Apparently the family had all died out and no one is left to be entombed here. The process where the bodies are entombed was facinating. Instead of being cremated or buried, the body is entombed in a casket, placed on the top shelf and the tomb is sealed. After one year and a day the seal is opened, the casket removed, the body removed (practically cremated because the inside temperatures of this tomb are around 250 degrees) and broken up then scattered on the bottom of this crypt. Interesting!
Walk past any cemetery in New Orleans and you'll notice a fascinating feature of this city. In New Orleans, the dead are buried in above-ground tombs. Plots were made this way because New Orleans is below sea level, and if bodies were put into graves, they would wash away because of the very high water table. There are many elaborate graves and ones into which many bodies were thrown when new family members took the space. These tombs are beautiful monuments, some dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Not all of the cemeteries are open to tourists. There are two worth visiting. One of these is Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its significant history, location, and architectural importance. The other is St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, which is the burial ground of some of the most famous figures from the city's past. Here you will find the supposed tomb of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Go with a tour to get the history of the cemeteries and because some of the surrounding areas around the sites can be unsavory.
They call the cemeteries in New Orleans "cities of the Dead". Surrounded by eight foot walls are tombs upon tombs upon tombs. The ones in the pictures, they call "ovens" (for obvious reasons). Some graves are crumpling away so bad, you swear you see bones. Some are untouched. All types of people are buried in these cemeteries surrounding the French Quarter....aristocrats, pirates, voodoo queens!!
Muggers have been known to take advantage of the many hiding places, so travel with a group is best. Walking tours are offered....information is everywhere! If tours aren't your thing, go in the morning and eavesdrop on one of the MANY tours that pass through.
If you know anything about New Orleans then you probably know it's essential that you visit their cemeteries or "cities of the dead" when you're there. You will be in awe of these "cities" and their beautiful statues, architectural and wrought iron detail.
Why not bury the dead underground like most everywhere else you ask?...
Because burial plots are shallow in New Orleans & the water table is high. If you were to dig a few feet down, the grave would become soggy, eventually filling with water. The casket would probably float!
Early settlers of the area tried actually placed stones in and on top of coffins back in the day 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. YIKES!
To this day most of the vaults within each tomb are stacked on top of one another. It is my understanding that the most recent vault (or coffin) is placed at the top within in the tomb and each vault beneath it is then moved down. The vault at the bottom is then taken out? It seems the people of New Orleans regularly handle their deceased, shifting and stacking bodies in the family crypt.
When visiting, be aware, muggings have been known to take place amidst the tombs. We did not, however, have a problem with this. But strange characters were lingering around.
The cemetaries are very unique, above ground and some are fairly ornate. Because we're below sea level most are buried above ground so the won't wash away (or worse!). There are quite a few to checkout - do it during the day only and not alone.
The above-ground tombs in the cemeteries of New Orleans are often referred to as "cities of the dead."
Votive candles line tombs on holidays to remind you the Dead have living relatives that still care.
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 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 by 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 an occasional coffin out of the ground in those areas generally considered safe from flooding and above the water table.
Another method tried was to bore holes in the coffins. This method also proved to be unsuitable. Eventually, New Orleans' graves were kept above ground following the Spanish custom of using vaults.
The walls of these cemeteries are made up of economical vaults that are stacked on top of one another. The rich and 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. New Orleans burial plots quickly became known as "Cites of the Dead."
On your way into New Orleans from the airport, you can glimpse the newer Metairie Cemeteries.
Caution: The "Cities of the Dead" are alluring, but dangerous. Don't go there alone-- travel with a group or arrange to attend a tour. The narrow paths and tombs offer concealment for muggers.
Tours of the cemeteries are conducted by several tour companies; these tours are definitely unique, and are worth the memories!
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One of the most unique thing in New Orleans is that all their graves are build above the ground and this is because the whole of New Orleans is below sea level.
From what I gathered from the cemetery tour that I took (there are a lots of tours for you to pick from in New Orleans, theres tourist booths all over just haggle a bit on the price to get the best rate), back to what I gathered at the cemetery tour, each of this grave houses the remains of each member of a family. The coffin is put into the grave and after a year when the body disintegrates into particles, it is put into a sack/bag which is then pushed to the end of the grave until the next family member passes on.
Quite interesting actually, when in New Orleans, don't give it a miss.