Burying the dead in a city below sea level was a problem that faced the earliest residents of New Orleans. Entombing the departed in elaborate marble chambers above ground created what is today one of the city’s most unique attractions: cemeteries that are both historic and hauntingly beautiful.
New Orleans’ “Cities of the Dead” continue to fascinate visitors today. While Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (currently closed for repairs and routine maintenance) may be the most well-known cemetery in New Orleans, there are several other cemeteries throughout the city filled with interesting history. These are six local cemeteries that offer insight into New Orleans’ past and present.
Six Off-The-Beaten-Path New Orleans Cemeteries
4100 Elysian Fields Ave. in Gentilly
The first Jewish congregation formed in New Orleans in the 1820s. By the 1840s, the Jewish community had grown large enough that the congregations were able to purchase land for cemeteries. Congregation Tememe Derech dedicated a cemetery near the end of Canal Street and Bayou Metairie (what is now City Park Avenue) in the 1840s. This was followed by a second cemetery, built by Congregation Dispersed of Judah, in the 1850s.
Jewish burial traditions require that the deceased be buried in-ground. Because of the common belief that New Orleans’ water table is too high, the Jewish community purchased land out on one of the highest parts of town, Gentilly Ridge, to build a larger cemetery. The Temple Sinai congregation began construction of Hebrew Rest in 1860. Temple Sinai constructed Hebrew Rest No. 2 in 1894. Congregation Chevra Thilim, who used Tememe Derech Cemetery, constructed Hebrew Rest No. 3 in 1935. While neither the first Hebrew Rest, nor its neighbor Ahvas Sholem Cemetery have the elaborate tombs like those found in many of the predominantly Christian cemeteries, Hebrew Rest is the resting place for a number of prominent Jewish families, as well as various local personalities. One of those personalities was “Oscar” Isentrout, the puppeteer who was the voice of “Mister Bingle.”
Mount Olivet Cemetery
4000 Norman Mayer Ave. in Gentilly
Just up Gentilly Boulevard from Elysian Fields sits Mount Olivet Cemetery, a historically black cemetery. Mt. Olivet opened in 1920 as a dedicated burial grounds for African-Americans, who were not allowed to bury their deceased in other cemeteries. Among the notables buried in Mount Olivet is Henry Roeland Byrd, known to many as “Professor Longhair.”
Mount Olivet has a combination of above-ground tombs as well as “copings,” where the deceased are buried in-ground, but the plot is raised from ground-level. One of the distinctive features of Mount Olivet is that a number of the tombs and copings use the blue street tile lettering found at numerous intersections across New Orleans.
400 City Park Ave. in Mid-City
Buying a cemetery plot and building a grand tomb on it was something outside the financial means of many New Orleanians. To make sure their departed loved ones went out in style, families would form “benevolent societies.” Members of the society would pay dues/fees, then the organization would purchase a plot in a cemetery and construct a nice tomb or mausoleum. In 1865, the Masonic Blue Lodges of the city acquired land along City Park Avenue, on the Metairie Ridge. Masonic Cemetery contains a combination of family tombs and copings, along with tombs for the respective lodges.
Freemasonry has a long and distinguished history in New Orleans. Many do not fully realize the impact of Freemasonry on the city because the Roman Catholic Church banned its members from joining Masonic Lodges regularly throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Still, Catholics continued to become Masons up until 1917, when becoming a Mason meant you would be automatically excommunicated. Dante Lodge even has its own mausoleum in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. Protestant and Jewish men continue to keep the traditions of Freemasonry alive, along with some Catholics.
635 City Park Ave. in Mid-City
There’s nothing fancy about Holt Cemetery. It’s the city’s “potter’s field,” where indigent families bury their loved ones. Holt has no fancy tombs, elaborate copings, or even a lot of permanent headstones. Graves are dug, the deceased are buried, and the families erect wooden crosses, perhaps leaving mementos at graveside. Those mementos range from stuffed animals to musical instruments.
Holt Cemetery is different every time you visit it. The largest marker in the cemetery is dedicated to musician Buddy Bolden, one of the fathers of Jazz. (It’s just a monument, however; exactly where Bolden is buried is uncertain.) The lack of brick, mortar, marble, and granite in Holt Cemetery makes the visitor closer to those buried there than other cemeteries in town. Ghost-hunting in Holt Cemetery is common.
Charity Hospital Cemetery
5056 Canal St. in Mid-City
Prior to 2007, Charity Hospital Cemetery was arguably the least visually interesting cemetery in New Orleans. It was constructed in 1848 as a potter’s field. Unlike Holt Cemetery, Charity’s deceased were buried in completely unmarked, mass graves. Initially, those buried here were victims of yellow fever or malaria. The city’s medical schools also used the cemetery to bury those who donated their bodies to science. The cemetery has long been closed to new burials. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the bodies of a number of the victims of the storm were not claimed by relatives. Rather than simply bury them in Holt, the city constructed a memorial to all victims of the storm in the front of Charity Hospital Cemetery. The memorial grounds are designed in the style of the counter-clockwise weather map symbol for a hurricane. The unknown victims of the storm are buried in above-ground mausoleums. The entire area is peaceful, and a fitting memorial to the friends and loved ones we lost on August 29, 2005.
If you can’t make it to see these historic cemeteries in person, take a virtual tour with our New Orleans cemeteries video.