Many cemeteries in New Orleans feature the famous above-ground tombs, which are lined up along long paths or avenues across the cemetery grounds. These intersecting avenues and tomb “houses” resemble a well-planned out city grid, giving rise to the nickname “Cities of the Dead.”
Tradition has it that the above-ground tombs were a necessity to combat the city’s high water table. According to the stories, attempts to dig traditional graves hit water a few inches or feet below the surface and any caskets buried in such graves would float to the surface after heavy rain. In response, the city turned to above-ground graves. Others claim that the large, above-ground tombs serve another purpose: economics. For the price of a single building, generations of family members may be buried in one location rather than in a number of plots.
Whatever the reason for the establishment of these amazing Cities of the Dead, their importance to the city and New Orleanians cannot be disputed. For many locals, family tombs hold generations of departed family members, making it easy to trace family lineage and pay respects to large portions of the family at one time. Beyond individual family matters, these amazing cemeteries also provide the city with the ability to trace its own history and celebrate many of the diverse cast of characters who helped make New Orleans (and its culture) what it is today.
For example, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 houses the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and civil rights pioneer Homer Plessy (of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson fame); St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 has music legends Earl King and Ernie K-Doe; St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 houses famed Storyville photographer E.J. Bellocq; and Cypress Grove Cemetery is the final resting place of Maunsel White, one of the first people to use the tabasco peppers to make a hot sauce.
Take a virtual tour of these cemeteries below:
Transcript of New Orleans Cemeteries Video
CJ Hunt: Like so many other aspects of our culture, the New Orleans cemeteries are unlike anyplace else. It kind of makes sense in a city where funerals turn into street parades that our burial places should be something special, also. Since we’re built on a swamp, people in New Orleans are buried in these above-ground tombs. Now, their style is so distinct that they’ve been nicknamed “Cities of the Dead”: a lot of the tombs have sculptures and artwork cut into them and some of them can get really elaborate.
Nita Hemeter: You see these tombs with these big, magnificent angels on the top; they’re just so beautiful. They say there are so many angels in the cemetery, you can hear the flapping of their wings.
Hunt: There’s plenty to appreciate just strolling through by yourself, but you can also book a tour to hear more of the stories and specific history behind these cemeteries.
Hemeter: A perfect example of the importance of cemeteries and, you know, community, in New Orleans is All Saints Day. Of course, that’s [the day after] Halloween! And all the families come to visit their family tombs, they’ll socialize with each other. Many of these families have been coming here for years and years. It’s tradition.
Hunt: This cemetery, Lafayette No. 1, is in the Garden District, but there are others all over the city.
Hemeter: To me, each cemetery has its own special flavor. I mean, all of them are interesting in different ways. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 — of course, a lot of people go there to see Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.
Hunt: When you’re visiting most cities, going to the graveyard probably doesn’t make the itinerary. But then again, New Orleans isn’t most cities. With GoNOLA TV, I’m CJ Hunt. We’ll see y’all soon.