Cemetery burials, New Orleans style
When I hopped off that plane, I wanted to squeal right over to the nearest cemetery. New Orleans=mandatory cemetery tour, right? Well, there are A LOT of them and we only had time for one. My family tolerates my cemetery obsession, but aren’t as interested in poring over every.single.tomb.detail like I am. Can you even imagine a 5-year-old NOT wanting to discuss the significance of tomb art or how the ethnicities of the early neighborhoods impacted the creation of the cemetery?? Pffffft.
As you probably know, New Orleans is a little swampy and the dead are buried above ground in tombs. These cemeteries have been called “Cities of the Dead” and they are impressive to see in person. St. Louis Cemetery #1 is probably the most famous one and this is where the “voodoo queen” Marie Laveau is buried, along with Homer Plessy (of Plessy vs. Ferguson fame). The word on the street is that this is where Nicolas Cage also bought his own plot for when he kicks the bucket.
We ended up going to Lafayette Cemetery #1 which is in the Garden District. The Garden District contains beautiful antebellum mansions with lush gardens and wrap around porches. Wealthy people of American descent built their homes with wealth made from sugar, shipping and politics. Anne Rice and Trent Reznor used to live here and Sandra Bullock does now (yes, we drove by her house and, yes, it’s beautiful).
The cemetery is surrounded by a wall that contains internment chambers for remains of people that could not afford a large tomb, individual family members or as temporary places for those contaminated with yellow fever back in the day. I could not believe how many of the tombs were broken and obviously neglected, which is not something I have seen in other cemeteries. Frankly, it was a little sad. When you buy a tomb in New Orleans, your family is forever responsible for it’s upkeep. People die or move away and VOILA! Crummy, broken tombs overgrown with weeds.
This brings me to the next part of my story. We’re walking along and I come to a tomb similar to the picture on the right, minus the bricks. Because I’m nosy, I crawl right in that thing and start checking it out. Dirt floor, broken wooden slats, weeds. No body parts or locks of hair, much to my disappointment. I didn’t know what the wooden shelves were for and I didn’t understand why it was empty or what had went on in there, but there I was.
Later on in the evening we had dinner with our new friend/amazing tour guide, Amy. Over oysters and a caprese salad the size of my head, she explained burial practices in New Orleans.
At death, the body is placed in the tomb (in a coffin or a casket) and the body is left inside for the time of mourning (a year and a day). After that, they pull the coffin out, dispose of it and place the body back in the tomb. They just throw that thing back in there, you ask? Yes. Yes, they do.
As you can imagine, the swampy heat and humidity works it’s magic to cremate the body, which eventually ends up on the tomb floor. What if Aunt Patty dies and there’s someone already occupying tomb space? Well, she gets put in the same tomb on with the other body/bodies. They just keep piling them in. Having numerous names on a tomb is normal, but I walked by one that had twenty-seven names listed. TWENTY-SEVEN. Talk about a crowded, dusty house.
After hearing the details and imagining the bottom of my shoe covered in “people” I was a little grossed out. But not grossed out enough to NOT lurk around another tomb again. Who’s with me and when are we going?
Also, to read more about my trip to New Orleans, check it out here!