It’s not hard to see why New Orleans is considered as one of the most haunted cities in America. Over its 300 year history it has experienced floods, fires, epidemics and major hurricanes. There are over 15 burial sites in the city and surrounding area and while visiting in 2013 I was determined to see (what I considered) the most famous two, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.
Like the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries of London, New Orleans has several municipal, city operated and owned cemeteries. Positioned, at one time, outside of the city limits most were built in the same manner as the Magnificent Seven to cope with overcrowding in local churchyards and the fear of illness via miasma. Known as ‘Cities of the Dead’ they look exactly as their name implies: tall stone crypts like small houses and arranged in street like rows. Burying your dead in an area below sea level is no easy feat; dig a few feet down and soon the hole will fill with water. At first stones were placed on top of coffins to weigh them down but rising water would soon cause air tight coffins to bob to the surface like corks in water. Another idea was to bore holes into coffins, but this meant that ground water was soon contaminated with decomposing corpses and leaking into drinking water leading to disease and sickness.
Soon the Spanish custom of interring the dead in above-ground vaults was adopted. This worked two fold as one, the coffins would be kept out of reach of water and two, the vaults worked as ‘ovens’ during the summer when they would get so hot inside they would cremate the bodies. When a new family member was interred the remains of the previous occupant were pushed into a chamber at the back of the vault (called a caveau) to make way for the new interment. This way many generations of the same family can be buried in the same vault. This prompted a new law to be introduced requiring a year and a day from one interment to the next to take place so the vault had time to do its work.
Located in the plush Garden District, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is surrounded by mansions and tree lined avenues that are well known for their architecture. This is a stark contrast to its sister site: Lafayette Cemetery No. 2, which is located to the north and is considered to be in a rough part of the city. It therefore doesn’t receive as much attention as its sister and many of the tombs have fallen into disrepair.
Lafayette No. 1 is the oldest of the municipal city cemeteries and is non-denominational and non-segregated. It boasts to be the final resting place of people from over 25 different countries. Built in 1883 it was designed by architect Benjamin Buisson who was responsible for the design of several other buildings in the city and nearby plantations. Named after the city of Lafayette which was once a district of New Orleans city, it is home to over 7,000 departed souls. The cemetery was founded during a cholera epidemic which, I imagine, helped populate the site when it was in its infancy.
The cemetery received substantial damage during Hurricane Katrina putting it on the ‘watch’ list of the Worlds Monuments Fund. In popular culture it has featured in many movies such as ‘Dracula 2000’, ‘Double Jeopardy’ (click here to view the scene) and ‘Interview with the Vampire’. Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire, famously acted out her own funeral in the cemetery to promote her book ‘Memnoch the Devil’ (Rice used to live in the nearby Garden District).
Historical tombs in Lafayette No. 1 include the founder of the New Orleans public school system Samuel Jarvis Peters, and Harry T. Hays who was an American Army officer and leaders of the brigade known as the ‘Louisiana Tigers’ who had a reputation of being fearless troops in battle. The cemetery is also home to several ‘society tombs’, vaults made available to members of certain organisations and fraternities, such as The Independent Oder of the Odd Fellows, the New Orleans Home for the Incurables and several volunteer fireman organisations.
St. Louis No. 1 is New Orleans oldest cemetery, and opened in 1789. One of three Roman Catholic cemeteries in the city. Whilst not strictly limited to Roman Catholics, there is a non-vaulted Protestant section and is the final resting place to many notable names. Its most famous resident is the New Orleans legend and ‘Voodoo Queen’ Marie Laveau. A free person of colour she was a healer, herbalist, religious leader and community activist who had a knack for getting folk to share their problems. Because of this she was feared by many who believe she dabbled in the dark arts and could curse those who displeased her. In reality she was a good Samaritan who helped those in need with her own brand of ‘magic’ and sought solutions to others problems.
She is reported to rest in the Glapion family vault with her domestic partner Christophe Dominick Duminy de Glapion.
One of the more infamous residents of St. Louis No. 1 is murderer Delphine LaLaurie. It was reported that on investigation of her New Orleans mansion in 1834, after a report of a fire in the building, police found many bound enslaved people who were in various stages of starvation in a hidden room behind the kitchen. They also found evidence of prolonged, violent abuse and cold blooded murder. There was a rumour that one enslaved young girl had thrown herself out of an upstairs window to her death to get away from an enraged LaLaurie. After the discovery LaLaurie is said to have fled to France and died and buried there but in the 1930s the sexton of the cemetery discovered a copper plaque in Alley 4 with an inscription that read “Madame LaLaurie, née Marie Delphine Macarty, died in Paris on December 7th 1842, aged 6-”
Probably the most controversial grave in the cemetery is one that has yet to receive its occupant. In 2010 actor Nicholas Cage had a 9-foot tall stone pyramid tomb erected in the cemetery with the Latin inscription ‘Omina Ab Uno‘ (translated ‘Everything from One’) over the door. Cage has a long history with the city of New Orleans, having lived there for many years and purchasing several properties in the area, including the mansion once belonging to Delphine LaLaurie. The structure has caused a lot of controversy with locals who feel it is not in keeping with the other monuments in the cemetery and several other older vaults were destroyed to make room for it. As a result the tomb has been subject to a lot of vandalism. The guide who took me to the cemetery claimed many locals had broken into the vault and urinated in it (Dead Good Travel obviously don’t endorse this!). Despite this the pyramid still stands and remains empty until Cage’s…well…remains, fill it. Rumour has it that once inside the vault Cage will regenerate his immortal self and his allegiance to the Illuminati will be revealed.
Before you visit:
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1:
As of September 9th 2019 the cemetery is currently closed for extensive repairs. As of writing this the cemetery is still closed and there is currently no re-opening date.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1:
Due to new terms set by the Archdiocese of New Orleans all visitors to the cemetery must be accompanied by a licensed tour guide, however families with loved-ones buried in the cemetery and tomb owners can acquire a special pass.
To book tickets for tours of the cemeteries please visit https://www.saveourcemeteries.org/ Founded in 1974 they are a non-profit organisation specifically dedicated to the promotion and protection of New Orleans historic cities of the dead.
Or if you would like to help the teams efforts please donate: https://www.saveourcemeteries.org/how-to-help/donate.html