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Next Tour Stop: New Orleans Cemeteries

 There is no architecture in New Orleans, except in the cemeteries — Mark Twain

new orleans cemetery

Copyright by WyoJones. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

One of the things that fascinated me about my time living in New Orleans were the above ground cemeteries. The hubs took a lot of pictures in the various cemeteries around the city, though he had to be careful. They are also a popular mugging spot. 

So, here’s a little history of the “little cities of the dead.” 

In the 1700s and 1800s, when a loved one passed, laying women came into the home to prepare the body to be taken to the obituary chapel, and from there it would be driven in a funeral carriage to the cemetery. The family would purchase a crypt above ground and decorate it with wreaths and flowers like dahlias, japonicas, and Chickasaw roses. Long before there was such a thing as New Orleans Jazz Bands there were brass bands, quite similar, that marched and played as they followed the funeral carriage.

Two reasons New Orleans’ dead were buried above ground during the 18th and 19th centuries are:

  • The high groundwater levels in New Orleans. Plots filled with water until caskets floated in the grave and even popped up out of the ground during floods or bad storms.
  • Above ground, burial is a French and Spanish cultural tradition. In fact, New Orleans’s crypts are similar to those in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

St. Louis Cemetery is the name of three of the oldest graveyards in New Orleans. St. Louis Cemeteries No. 1 and No. 2 are on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, is the oldest existing cemetery in New Orleans. Mark Twain referred to it as the Cities of the Dead. It was opened in 1789, replacing the older St. Peter Cemetery when the city was restructured after a fire in 1788.

crying angel inside a crypt

Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, LA
One of the most photographed and talked about statues in Metairie Cemetery is inside the mausoleum of Chapman H. Hymans. The interior of the mausoleum, modeled after the mausoleum of Queen Louise of Prussia, is lit by 2 blue stained glass windows that cast a soft light on the statue of a young woman with angel wings head down ion her arm and overcome with sadness. The beautiful marble statue, “Grief” was made in Carara, Italy. The intensity of the blue light in the mausoleum changes during the day but “the blues” never leaves this sad but beautiful tomb. Copyright by WyoJones. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

The resting places are like miniature stone houses, enclosed by black iron fences. They’re adorned with sculptures and crosses. Most have fallen into a state of antiquity revealing layers of paint brick and stone with green weeds pushing through the cracks like ancient ruins. Also, there are wall vaults for families and people associated through various social organizations buried in separate chambers of one large tomb.

Several famous people are buried there including:

  • ·         Etienne de Boré, aristocratic pioneer of the sugar industry and New Orleans’ first mayor.
  • ·         Homer Plessy, of the 1896 Plessy versus Ferguson Supreme Court decision on civil rights
  • ·         Ernest N. “Dutch” Morial, New Orleans’ first African-American mayor
  • ·         Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess

Beginning in 1823, New Orleans started moving its burial places away from the center of the city to help prevent outbreaks of deadly diseases. So in the early 19th century, they built Saint Louis Cemetery #2.

Some of the historical figures and famous people buried there are:

  • ·         Dominique You, the privateer
  • ·         Henriette DeLille, founder of an African American religious order to educate free and enslaved black people
  • ·         Numerous, notable New Orleans Jazz musicians

St. Louis No. 3 opened in 1854 and most of the crypts are even more ornate than those in the other St. Louis cemeteries. There are even several 19th-century marble tombs.

Famous artists and celebrities buried there include:

  • ·         Paul Sarebresole, ragtime composer
  • ·         E. J. Bellocq, photographer
  • ·         Ralston Crawford, painter
  •           Sweet Emma Barrett, gifted, self-taught pianist and singer, who helped create the New Orleans’ jazz sound.

I hope you found the “tour” as fascinating as I do (though I will confess I don’t want to be buried in a crypt–yes, they are multi-use. Might be a little crowded getting out on resurrection morning!).

Perilously yours,

Paulinebig uneasy banner

New installment in my Big Uneasy series!