Despite the warnings of the dangers of visiting St Louis Cemetery No. 1, located on the rather seedy, skid-row like Basin Street in New Orleans, I found myself walking by it and simply couldn’t resist going in. Fortunately, it turned out to be quite safe, filled not only with organized tours but with large numbers of “Razorbacks,” that is, fans of the Arkansas football team, who are in town for the Sugarbowl game tonight.
The tombs are above-ground vaults, not because of the water-table, but simply because that was the custom of the Spanish and French families whose members are buried in the cemetery. It was founded by Spanish royal decree in 1789. Over the years, space needs resulted in the construction of St Louis Cemetery No. 2 and No. 3, located some distance from No. 1. They are owned and administered by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Referred to as the Cities of the Dead, they are composed of house-like individual vaults and the so-called “oven tombs,” which were columbaria or huge vaults with doors opening onto niches for individual burials. People are amazed at Tolomato’s 1,000 burials – but St Louis has some 100,000 burials in its relatively small space, about 4 times the area of Tolomato. This is because, as at Tolomato, graves and vaults were reused; when the body had become skeletalized, the bones were either removed to a corner or buried under the floor of the tomb, thus making way for the subsequent burials of other deceased family members.
Many of the tombs and fences were in rather rough condition, although signs indicated that a restoration project had been undertaken in the 1980s. However, a complete job would certainly require a massive endeavor and investment of money, and there are no doubt more pressing needs at the moment.
Interesting people are buried there, including Homer Plessy, who challenged the segregation laws of the South in a case which went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1896. Unfortunately, he lost and the Court upheld the “separate but equal” policy.
There is also the tomb of the so-called “voodoo priestess,” Marie Laveau. Voodoo entered New Orleans with the flood of Haitian refugees from the Haitian rebellion in 1804, by which time NO was part of the United States. Marie Laveau’s tomb is now the centerpiece of the ghost tours of New Orleans – even more omnipresent than the ghost tours of St Augustine. Tourists leave bizarre trinkets at her tomb and scrawl three x’s on it, presumably for good luck. There was a similar tomb, below, although I wasn’t sure who it belonged to; possibly her daughter, also a voodoo practitioner?
I had a number of questions about St Louis, but, judging by the bizarre stories I heard tumbling from the mouths of the guides of the tours that were tramping through the cemetery, a tour would not be the way to get them answered. But there is a local group called “Save Our Cemeteries,” and tomorrow I hope to be able to do one of their tours of another historic cemetery, Lafayette. They seem to be similar to the TCPA and promise to provided accurate information! More on this tomorrow.