When I was in New Orleans, I couldn’t help myself. As I passed the gates of St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, the tombs shaped like tiny houses invited me in. Like a friendly suburban neighborhood, they stood shoulder to shoulder in front of small sidewalks. The sidewalks lined paved streets. Some of the tombs had fresh flowers on the stoop. There were apartment-style tombs for those who couldn’t afford the stand-alone model, and there were large tombs for guild or league members like firemen and masons. It was a small city. A city for the dead.
This cemetery was established in 1854 and was well tended. Most of the marble tombs gleamed white. There were no weeds and hardly any broken tablets. As I wandered up and down the lanes, I scanned the names and ages of death. Life was so much shorter back then.
Some tombs had ten or twelve names engraved on the tablet. How did all of those bodies fit inside? They can’t dig crypts below the tombs—the water table is too high. A guide told me this: A simple coffin is put in the tomb, which is then sealed with a closure tablet for a minimum of “one year and one day,” according to tradition. At the time of the next burial, the first body is removed from its coffin and placed in the rear or bottom of the tomb. The coffin of the next deceased is added and the first body can return to the earth. This process allows more people to be buried in a smaller area.
What happens if two people in the family die within the “one year and one day” period? Unfortunately this was common during epidemics like the yellow fever outbreaks that regularly swept through the city. (In 1853 nearly 8,000 New Orleanians lost their lives that year alone.) In these cases the newly deceased would be laid to rest in a vault until the mourning period had ended and the person could be interred into the family tomb. These wall vaults were also used for poor families that couldn’t afford a larger tomb.
Some of the wealthier family tombs were made of marble with elaborate details, but most were constructed from inexpensive plastered brick.
A quick hop on the streetcar and I was at the Lafayette Cemetery No 1. Established in 1833, it is the oldest of the city-operated cemeteries. It is located in the Garden District, one of the wealthiest areas in New Orleans, but this cemetery was filled to capacity within decades of its opening—before the surrounding neighborhood reached its greatest affluence. More than 7,000 people are interred in this one city block.
This cemetery had much more of a “spooky” vibe than the St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. Maybe it was because the day had turned rainy and gray, or because the weeds were overgrown, or because the plaster was caked with grime. Whatever the reason, I knew I didn’t want to be here after dark.
This cemetery’s most famous residents are of the blood-sucking kind. Anne Rice’s vampire Lestat. among others, “lived” here, and Anne Rice herself lived around the corner. But I was far more interested in the everyday people, the ones who are all but forgotten to history, except for these markers that said they were here and that they “went about doing good.”
Part of the epitaph below reads: Dr. George S. Brown aged 76 years, died 1943 — “He went about doing good.” His son Grayson Hewitt Brown, aged nearly 20 years, died in WWI –“Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
If you’re planning a trip to New Orleans, check out Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit group working to restore these historic cemeteries. They also offer tours.
Have you toured a cemetery? Have a great weekend, everyone!