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Along with Spanish moss and lacy iron balconies, the cities of the dead are part of the indelible landscape of New Orleans. Recognized the world over for their elaborate and beautiful aboveground tombs, their ghostly and inscrutable presence enthralls visitors. There are 45 cemeteries in New Orleans—31 are considered historic, and 5 are officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Iconic tourist attractions as much as Jackson Square or Bourbon Street, the cemeteries have a fascinating backstory—one that has become twisted over time by mythology. But the truth is so fascinating that it needs little embellishment.

Sometimes called “Cities of the Dead” for their resemblance to urban centers, the cemeteries have of course been a part of New Orleans nearly since its founding. For the earliest settlers, dying wasn’t that big of a deal, everyone was doing it, and the dead were buried in common graves or along the riverbanks (except the hoitiest of the toity, who were buried at St. Louis Cathedral). But when the river rose or a major rain caused minor flooding, that didn’t work out too well. Old Uncle Etienne had an unpleasant habit of bobbing back to the surface, doubtless no longer looking his best. This practice gave rise to some good stories (though experts debate their veracity) of coffins floating downriver, bodies weighted down with rocks, and holes drilled in caskets to let the water through and prevent them from popping up from the ground like deathly balloons.

Add to that cholera and yellow-fever epidemics, which helped increase the number of bodies and also the possibility of infection. Given that the cemetery of the time was inside the Vieux Carré, it’s all pretty disgusting to think about.

Around the late 1780s, death was getting to be a bigger deal. Well, death was getting to be more prevalent, what with fires and yellow-fever epidemics and such; honoring death and the dead was indeed getting to be a bigger, more ceremonial deal. When new cemeteries became necessary, they were plotted on the outskirts of town where illness and odor were less likely to be troublesome. The first, St. Peter, was begun in 1725 by the Catholic Diocese, and rests where a Superdome parking lot now sits. Bodies were buried in the soil there. When St. Peter was full, the famed St. Louis No. 1 came about, in 1789 on what is now Rampart Street. The first major city of the dead, with fancy tombs and a parklike setting, provided a more fitting tribute to departed loved ones. When it filled up, others soon followed, improving on the haphazard layout of St. Louis No. 1 to form designated “streets” in a grid pattern.

Following Old-World Style

It’s true that the high water table and muddy soil here influenced the popularity of the aboveground “condo crypt” look—the dead are placed in vaults that look like miniature buildings. But they are actually customary in France and Spain (and elsewhere), so it was just another tradition that the colonists brought with them to New Orleans. Some say St. Louis No. 1 was inspired by the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Perhaps it’s just because they are such an impressive, prestigious sight.

The aboveground vaults are also often adorned with stunning works of sculptural art, decorations that represent the family name, occupation, or religion (which was invariably Catholic; the first Jewish cemetery was not founded until 1828). Some tombs were not owned by families, but by a group, like the firefighters, police, or a benevolent society. These were decorated thusly: Witness the enormous elk visible from the corner of Canal Street and City Park Avenue. These were helpful for families who could not afford a family tomb. The cemeteries may also have fancy ironwork in the gates and fences—and on the whole are well worth a visit.

Hi Honey, I’m Home

So . . . all that tomb for one dead guy? Not so much. The tombs indeed host multiple bodies. The methodology is actually fairly clever. Inside the tomb are long chambers, one above the other, separated by shelves. When a casket goes in, it rests on the top shelf, and the vault is re-sealed with simple brick and mortar. Heat and humidity act like a slow form of cremation. After a year and a day (by custom and rule—to accommodate the traditional year-long mourning period), another family member may be buried here. Whatever’s left of the first one is moved to the bottom level, and the casket bits are removed. In some tombs, that shelf has a gap toward the back, and the remnants just get pushed back, where they fall through the gap to the vault below. Everyone eventually lies jumbled together to continue their quest to a dusty family reunion. And so room is made for a new casket, and the exterior is closed up once again. The result is sometimes dozens of names, going back generations, on a single spot. It’s an efficient, space-saving system that gives new meaning to the phrase “all in the family.” If a family loses two people within the year, one of them rests in a temporary holding vault until that year-and-a-day period has passed.

Upkeep Issues

By law, families must maintain their tombs. Traditionally, All Saints’ Day (Nov 1) is when families gather to honor their dead, and in the days leading up to it you will still see people busily tidying up and washing down the sun-bleached, whitewashed brick buildings. Some are treated with lime, leaving a yellow or green tint. Flowers, candles, photos, and memorabilia are left on and around the tombs of loved ones. To this day, if you go to a cemetery on November 1 (which we recommend), you will likely see a tender graveside party atmosphere.

A Tomb of One’s Own

For a singular souvenir or gift, artist Michael Clement sculpts miniature tombs (and shotgun houses) in rough-hewn terra cotta, finished in aged gold, bronze, and gunmetal gray. You’re not going to find these in San Francisco. Not in Bali. Only in New Orleans. Prices start around $98 (and remember, no tax is charged on original works of art in many parts of the city) and they’re available at the Historic New Orleans Collection gift shop (www.hnoc.org). It’s not everyone who wants a gilt crypt on their coffee table, but we do. 

But many graves have fallen into disrepair, when family members are no longer willing, able, or around to do the maintenance.

There are laws that allow the city to take over and transfer a neglected tomb, but these are largely unenforced (and there’s the creepy factor). Other laws and customs around these centuries-old tombs are murky, and responsibility for the expensive upkeep gets shifted or shunted off. So sadly, most cemeteries today face moderate to severe dishevelment. For years, crypts lay open, exposing their pitiful contents—if they weren’t robbed of them—bricks, shattered marble tablets, even bones, lay strewn around. Several of the worst eyesores have been cleaned up; others still remain in deplorable shape.

For many years, New Orleans cemeteries were in shambles. Most of the restoration and cleanup efforts have been spearheaded by the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries (www.saveourcemeteries.org; tel. 504/525-3377). Consider throwing a few, um, bones their way, especially since cemetery access is usually free. The website accepts online donations. Save Our Cemeteries also offers tours, events, and lectures.

Survivors

A faux Voodoo practice continues in some of the St. Louis cemeteries, where visitors scrawl Xs on the tombs. Please don’t do this; not only is it a made-up Voodoo ritual, but it destroys the fragile tombs.

Concerns were high for the fate of the iconic cemeteries during the Katrina disaster days, but “the system worked”: The tombs survived unscathed, except for some high-water marks much like those borne by any other flooded structure. Shockingly, some unscrupulous visitors and even a terrible tour guide will still revile the tombs with graffiti or other abuse. Call police if you spot this abhorrent, illegal behavior.

For more information, we highly recommend Robert Florence’s New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead (Batture Press, 1997). It’s full of photos, facts, and human-interest stories for those with a deeper interest in this fascinating aspect of New Orleans culture, and is available at bookstores throughout the city.

Safety First

You may be warned against going to the cemeteries alone and urged to go with a scheduled tour group (see “Organized Tours”). Thanks to the cemeteries’ location and layout—some are in dicey neighborhoods, and the crypts obscure threats to your safety—visitors have historically been prime pickings for muggers and so forth. I’ve heard this for years, but haven’t ever heard of any actual incidents. Still, avoid St. Louis No. 2 and Lafayette No. 2—and besides offering peace of mind, a good tour is totally worthwhile. If you’re going to make a day of visiting the cemeteries, think about renting a car and visiting tombs farther away, safely, and at your own pace. If you opt to visit lesser-known cemeteries in rough parts of town, use common sense. 

Some Cemeteries You Can See on Your Own

Most of these cemeteries (such as St. Louis No. 3 and Metairie) have offices that can provide maps or direct you to a grave location. All have sort-of-regular hours—anytime from 9am to 4pm is a safe bet.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.