The Way of Death in New Orleans: A Cemetery Tour

New Orleans is a city uniquely its own. It's passionate and colorful and a constant juxtaposition of extreme beauty against equal hardship. It's mercurial and constantly changing, adapting, shifting, and yet rooted deeply in traditions. It's as likely to offer Southern hospitality as gang violence. It understands loss and defeat and much as resilience and community. It's one of my favorite places in the world. 

On a swampy Friday in June, I took a private tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 with G L-f de Villiers Historic Tours. I wanted to learn more about local burial customs and find out what draws an estimated 100,000 people to these "Cities of the Dead" each year.

My tour started in the Shrine of Saint Jude at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Saint Jude is the patron saint of hope and impossible causes, two things New Orleans knows a lot about. Those seeking help with either will burn candles and bring offerings and prayers, asking for a miracle. Sometimes Saint Jude listens, and plaques of gratitude are left as thanks. 

In many ways New Orleans was built around death. From plagues to epidemics to battles and hurricanes, the history of this city is a history of destruction and loss. It makes sense that traditions around burial would become an important part of life, when funerals were such a frequent and constant occasion, regardless of class or race or age.

Many funeral customs were created out of necessity. Straddling the Mississippi River, this is a notoriously muddy city, with many areas 1" - 2" below sea level and a water table just beneath the soil. While burial in the ground was the standard across much of Judeo-Christian traditions, in New Orleans the graves would fill with water, unearthing the dead during floods or causing coffins to float towards the surface. This was understandably unsettling, and above ground tombs became an ideal solution. 

Vaults can house many - if not hundreds or even thousands - of bodies, usually divided by family or organization including religions groups, social clubs, or guilds. They serve multiple purposes and are set up in two part: a compartment for coffins, where the deceased will initially rest, and a caveau - or "cellar" - underneath for where they will eventually be moved. With the hot, humid local climate, temperatures can rise up to 160 degrees inside the tomb, turning everything from the coffin to the body into ashes. Once the vault is needed again - traditionally after a respectful period of at least a year and a day - the vault is opened and the remains are carefully gathered in a special burial bag and placed in the caveau, along with the other members of the vault. Life doesn't always follow these timelines, and so if the vault is needed sooner than a year and a day, or if more than one person needs the same vault at the same time, their remains are stored in temporary vaults along the cemetery wall unit until they can be moved to the appropriate tomb at the appropriate time.

Tombs range from brand new to refurbished to dilapidated, but regardless of the aesthetic, the real estate is pricey. A standard tomb starts at around $50,000 and a more elaborate crypt can run up to $750,000. Your class in life often dictates where you will rest in death, however, in true Southern hospitality, it isn't uncommon for generous tomb owners to allow friends or even strangers into their vault. The Barbarin family set aside six of their eighteen vault spaces for local musicians, and the infamous voodoo queen Marie Laveau is said to have 84 slaves, friends, neighbors, and strangers interred in her tomb.

The future tomb of actor Nicholas Cage

The future tomb of actor Nicholas Cage

I was especially intrigued by the "jazz funeral," a custom that seems unique to the spectacle and pageantry of New Orleans. Starting in the late 1800s and continuing even today (though to a lesser extent), a brass band join the funeral procession to the church for the wake, and then lead the way to the burial site. The music starts with a somber tone, and after they "cut the body loose" - or place it inside the vault - the music becomes gradually more upbeat, inviting friends, family, and strangers to join in the celebration of life through cathartic dancing.

In New Orleans a great reverence is held for the dead, and while haunting ghost stories abound, so does belief in helpful spirits. Offerings are left at many of the tombs, and you'll find flowers, markings, and small gifts placed around those believed to be most powerful.

One of the most famous tombs is that of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, where legends and rumors swirl that she will grant you a wish if you draw three Xs on her tomb, knock three times, turn around three times, and whisper your wish into her vault. Bobby pins and hair ties are scattered in front of her tomb's cavaux, an homage to her early years as a hair dresser, and you can find Xs carved or drawn in anything from market to lipstick.

It's easy to get caught up in the history and myths and and unique beauty of New Orleans cemeteries, but it's important to also remember each vault represents a loss, a person - or many people - who were carefully placed there by those who love them. Each tomb holds a story of grief for those who or were left without their child or parent or spouse. While touring the cemeteries is a chance to learn more about this vibrant city and its unique burial customs, in the end this isn't entertainment, but instead a way to honor and remember the brevity of life, and the ways in which we leave our legacy behind.