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A guided tour of New Orleans's oldest cemetery
Located just one block away from the French Quarter, St. Louis Cemetery #1 opened in 1789 and it's one of the most famous cemeteries in the United States, mostly thanks to its unusual architecture: instead of being buried, the deads are laid to rest in above-ground tombs and mausoleums, something that is not unique to New Orleans but that is more rarely seen in the US. We were advised to visit the cemetery as part of a tour for safety reasons - the cemetery is located next to the Iberville housing projects, and there have been reports of mugging and pickpocketing, but to be honest the area felt pretty safe to me and I saw lots of people walking around the cemetery on their own. However, I'm still glad we decided to go on a tour because we learned a lot about New Orleans along the way: as we were walking in the direction of the cemetery, our guide gave us lots of information about the history of the city, but also about how things stand today. It was easy to see how much she enjoyed living in New Orleans, and she had no problem sharing both the good and the bad with us. That's how we found out about Storyville, the city's red-light district from 1897 to 1927, about the evolution of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, and about the city's thriving artistic community, just to give a few examples.
Once we got to the cemetery, our guide showed us the most interesting sights, such as some sunken tombs, the tiny Protestant section of the cemetery, the spot people have come to refer to as the "Nicolas Cage Plaza" (the actor bought a section of the cemetery and erected an ugly pyramid in which he will eventually be buried) and, of course, the purported tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orleans's famous Voodoo Queen. Our guide told us that Marie Laveau's tomb is believed to be the third most visited burial site in the US after those of Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy. People still bring offerings and leave "XXX" marks on the tomb in the hopes that the priestess will grant them their wish. It was very interesting to find out more about the practice of voodoo in New Orleans, and to conclude the tour our guide brought us to an active voodoo temple in the French Quarter. The tour lasted over 2 h, so I'd say it was well worth the $20 they charge, especially considering that some of the money goes towards restoring the cemetery's historic monuments.
The Cemetery/Voodoo tour by Historic New Orleans Tours starts at Royal Cafe Beignet (334-B Royal Street) at 10:00 am and 1:00 pm daily. Reservations are recommended but not necessary.
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St. Louis Cemetery no. 1 (continued)
Another facet of this particular cemetery that interested me was the history behind the Catholic and Protestant divisions (since the cemetery was Catholic, the Protestants were begrudgingly allocated a small strip of land behind the main property, overshadowed by the more opulent crypts and mausoleums and restricted in size and shape of their own crypts), as well as the ethnic divisions inside the cemetery proper (i.e. Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, French primarily).
I was also fascinated to learn that this cemetery ran right through a red light district and that the group of apartments behind it once functioned as an active and busy bordello! The business about Marie Laveau's tomb wasn't that interesting to me - but the general voodoo tidbits and learning about how the public paid (and continues to pay) their respects to a revered voodoo priestess (mostly just a really clever businesswoman preying on the imagination and fears of the antebellum women of leisure during that time), was intriguing.
Our guide was a colorful character who clearly enjoyed his role and shared all kinds of fascinating minutiae that even I did not know after living in New Orleans!
I highly recommend this tour.
Of the 42 cemeteries in New Orleans, this is the one that gets the most traffic. It's the oldest (surviving), close to the Quarter and on many tour group itineraries. The story goes that the original St. Peter's burying ground was nearly full and a fire and epidemic in the late 1700's created a critical need for a new cemetery. St. Louis #1 was created in 1788/89 and was positioned outside of once-existing city walls as it was believed that the living could contract diseases from the deceased. With New Orleans' black history of devastating yellow fever, typhoid and malarial epidemics, fear of disease was understandable! Some of the notables buried here are the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau (maybe), N.O's first African-American Mayor, Ernest Morial, and Bernard de Marigny, who brought the game of craps to the U.S. but, ironically, lost most of his fortune to gambling!
St. Louis #1 is primarily a Latin-style cemetery (see my cemetery travelog for info) with a dividing wall of oven tombs between the large Catholic and smaller Protestant sections. Because its location is said to be in a tough area and because its walled interior is a confusing maze of dead ends, they recommend that you visit it with a tour for safety. During peak hours there're so many people milling about that you'd probably be OK on your own if you didn't stray far from larger groups. Still, you'd also miss out on an interesting history lesson so try a tour (see tour tip). The website is REALLY good - be sure to give it a look before your trip!
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always liked my cemeteries
If you like cemeteries, you'll love New Orleans. They have lots of them and they are quite scenic. You can do tours that take them all in or just make your way to the one you like and wander around on your own. St. Louis Cemetery was our favorite.
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City of the Dead --- St. Louis Cemetery 1
Located on the edge of the French Quarter is New Orleans oldest cemetery. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 contains approximately 700 tombs, tomb ruins and markers.
As many are aware, the whole city of New Orleans is located below sea level, thus the dead are buried in above-ground tombs or vaults. Most of the tombs at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 were designed to house many generations of a family or society group in the same tomb. Traditionally the dead were placed in wooden coffins in one of the vaults. The vault opening was loosely closed with mortared brick, and a stone closure tablet sealed the tomb. If the space was needed for another burial, the vault could be re-opened after at least 1 year and 1 day, the coffin removed and burned, and the decomposed remains pushed to the back of the tomb.
In 1834, John H.B. Latrobe painted a watercolor showing tombs limewashed in earthen yellows, grays, blues, and reds, as opposed to the harsh white tombs seen today. Evidence of this is shown through the slow decay and crumbled mortar.
It is widely suggested that one should visit the cemeteries with a tourguide in the theory that there is "safety in numbers". We did not have benefit of a tour guide, however there were 2 tours going on when we got there, and several families (just like us) that explored on their own. Either way, always exercise caution.
If you wish to see more, I have more pictures of the St. Louis Cemetery 1 in my Travelogues.
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St Louis Cemetery No.1
this is one of the oldest cemeteries located in new orleans and you can certainly tell by the condition some of the tombs are in.
this is still a place you don't want to miss. it's in a rather shady part of town, so i don't reccommend going here alone, but it's very easy to find a walking tour that stops here.
here you'll find new orleans' first african-american mayor ernst morial entombed next to the glapion family tomb where marie laveau and her daughter are both reputedly buried.
story goes that when they went to entomb the mayor, the path to the family crypt was not large enough so they had to turn the coffin sideways. apparently, mourners were able to hear the body thwump against the side of the coffin as the poor mayor's coffin was turned to fit through the narrow walkway. in recent years the family crypt was rebuilt to face the opposite dirrection so that an instance like this would never occur again.
an interesting fact about marie laveau a healer and prominant figure in her time: tombs in new orleans are almost never filled to capacity and marie laveau's tomb, is no exception. in her benevolance, she would offer up space in her family crypt to those who could not afford burial space so that they could be buried on christian ground.
for more pictures that capture the beauty of these old tombs, see my travelogue.
for more info on marie laveau and the rituals surrounding her tomb, see my general tips.
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I didnt expect to do a cemetery tour but I was really glad I did. For 18 dollars we did a walking tour from around Bourbon street all the way to the cemetery. It took alittle over two hours and our guide was full of interesting information, facts, history and comedy.
We learned alot about why the cemeteries are above ground in New Orleans and the whole process it takes to bury people there. Our tour was around 10am so it wasnt creepy or scary or anything like that.
It was very interesting and we reaally enjoyed this tour. I have to admit though, one of the main reasons of doing this tour was to see the grave site of the Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.
Visit the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau
I never heard of Marie Laveau until my sister in law told me about her and to take picture of her grave.
Marie Laveau lived in the 1820's, she also had a daughter and an aunt with the same name so her life gets alittle complicated with people confusing the three women. There have also been many inaccuracies writen about her because of the same reason.
She was a Catholic woman of black, Indian, and white blood. She made a living by being a haidresser and a spiritual guide.
Her story is quite interesting and if you want to read more about her and how she became the
"Voodoo Queen" the book "A New Orleans Voodoo Priestess" by Long is a highly recommended book. Our guide from Save Our Cemeteries said that this book appears to be the most accurate book detailing Marie Laveaus life.
If you go to the cemetery and visit her grave you will notice a bunch of X's on her grave. There is a rumor that if you write three X's on her grave and call out her name very loud and make a wish, your wish will come true. You also have to turn around three times and touch her grave and some other stuff. I didnt do this but I was surprised to see how many other people believed that their desires would be granted. Just to let you know, the people at the cemetery do not like people doing this to here grave.
As a mater of fact, they do not want you to touch the graves, lean on them or anything. There is alot of history here and these graves are very old and fragile.
St Louis No. 1 Cemetery
The St Louis No.1 Cemetery is the oldest and probably the most interesting cemetery in New Orleans. One of the residents is the legendary voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. There was also a scene from the film 'Easy Rider' filmed here.
St Louis #1... A Haunting Juxtaposition
Right on Esplanade, just outside the French Quarter is St Louis #1 Cemetery. I encourage everyone to see this place. And if you're in for a little spooky fun, sneak in after dark for a more personal encounter. When i was there in June of 2003, there were 3 holes big enough to fit through in the brick wall enclosing the cemetery. So, please, if you dare. Don't forget the Voodoo Queen's Tomb is in there, so tiptoe.
Visit my St Louis Cemetery Travelogue for more photographs :
- Historical Travel
The Historic St Louis Cemetery...
The Historic St Louis Cemetery number 1
Unlike other cemeteries in the world where tombs are underground, the tombs in the historic St.Louis cemetery of New Orleans are built above-ground (due to water levels in the area). The notorious Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau is buried here.
Safety in the cities of the dead
(Which St. Louis?)
That answer depends on how street smart you are. The short answer is NO.
Although, if you have your wits about you, aren't dressed like a tourist and don't have $2000 in camera equipment on you, you should be fairly safe if you go at a time when there are tour groups passing through. The above ground graves make for great hiding spots for thieves, if you have a partner with you you are much safer than a solo tourist. Watch your converstaion topics, don't give up that you're from out of town or are carrying tourist items (mp3 player, expensive cameras, excessive cash.) Don't wander from others in the area is you are with 1 or 2 people. Thieves are opportunists mostly.
Personally, I have been there 4 times, always with a group of 2 to 6, but never with a tour. We always went in the busy times of day, never right at opening or dusk.
ST Louis #1
Ok....I am here to post a few simple facts. I get so tired of reading people talk about the safety issues of the cemetary. First fact. There is a review directly below mine that says its seems safe with groups, but she has never been at dawn and at dusk. Want to know why she hasnt been there then? ITS NOT OPEN. It closes at 3pm everyday, 12 on Sundays. You cant go at night. Second fact. Its across the street from the Police station. Third fact. Its always crowded in there and the tour guides are on the lookout for any shady characters. Fourth. Its been almost 6 years since a violent crime happened in the cemetary. There are walking tours, carriage drivers and mules, bus tours...all going in and out. Well, the mules dont, but they sit outside without the driver....no mules have ever been robbed. So by all means, please keep saying its unsafe there. Dont let facts get in your way.
Saint Louis Cemetery #1 - French Quarter
Saint Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans. It was established in 1789 following the great fire of 1788. There are a few graves of famous people in the cemetery including Homer Plessy from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case and Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, who is buried in the Glapion crypt.
As in most other New Orleans cemeteries the crypts are all above ground; while some believe this is due to a high water table, other say this is more due to Spanish and French tradition. The cemetery covers just one block, but it is supposed to contain the remains of 100,000 dead.
The cemetery is located on Basin Street next to the French Quarter at the end of St. Louis Street.
A historic marker at the Basin Street entrance to the cemetery reads:
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Welcome to this holy place.
This Catholic cemetery is the last resting
place of the bodies of the faithfully departed
awaiting reunion with their souls at the
resurrection of the last day.
Blessed by the Church and dedicated to god
the Catholic cemetery testifies to a faith in
the immortality of the soul and the promise
of resurrection with christ, the lord. Here
the living find comfort and are consoled by
visiting the burial places of their loved ones
and praying for them.
Tour the Necropolis
While I did see couples and small groups of travelers touring the cemetery on their own, I strongly advise taking a guided tour. Our group was small (only six of us) and our guide was incredibly friendly and knowledgeable. As an added bonus, we also got to see the city from the fourth floor of the new rail station information center across the street from the cemetery after the formal tour was over.
Also, I strongly advise bringing water and wearing sunblock. It was incredibly hot, even in the morning, and there is very little shade!
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