Nicolas Cage owns a Gulfstream jet, two Europeans castles, a haunted mansion, a collection of shrunken heads, a dinosaur skull, a line of comic books called VooDoo Child and more than 30 cars, including nine Rolls Royces, an Enzo Ferrari and a Lamborghini once owned by the Shah of Iran.
But this past April he purchased what may be his most outrageous possession of all: a nine-foot tall pyramid in a New Orleans cemetery. In it, he plans to spend eternity.
Cage’s pyramid is just the latest eccentricity in a city with a colorful, and often ghostly, cemetery history. Because much of the city lies at or below sea-level, early graves were dug just a few feet down rather than the standard six. Still, they often became soggy and filled with water. During big rainstorms, caskets would pop out of the ground and float away. Settlers placed large stones atop coffins to try and keep them down or bored holes in the top, but to no avail. The solution was above-ground burial vaults.
The first cemetery in New Orleans with above-ground burial vaults was Saint Louis Cemetery #1, which was built in 1789 by Governor Esteban Miro, while the city was still under Spanish rule. People continued to be buried below ground but in the early 1830s a series of epidemics struck the city. Many died and the outbreak was blamed partly on noxious fumes emitted by corpses. The city council passed an ordinance requiring all future burials to take place on land adjacent to the Bayou St. John, but an exemption allowed burials to occur elsewhere as long as they were in above-ground structures. This began the tradition of above-ground tombs.
Buried in Saint Louis Cemetery are numerous legends from the early days of the city, including Homer Plessy, a Creole man who in 1892, violated a Louisiana state law by boarding a white only railroad car. His famous case, Plessy vs. Ferguson, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The resulting decision institutionalized segregation in the south for more than half a century. There is also Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, a French-Creole American playboy and businessman who now has a section of the city named after him. As a child, he dined on plates of gold and is credited with introducing the dice game craps to America. Eventually, Marigny lost his fortune gambling and died impoverished.
Also buried in the Saint Louis Cemetery is the famous voodoo queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, a mysterious 19th century Creole hairdresser who serviced wealthy white families. She supposedly owned a snake named Zombi, after an African god, and may have run a brothel. According to the local papers, she died on June 16, 1881, but many residents claimed to continue to see her in town. Doubters said the sightings were simply that of one of her daughters, also named Marie, but some were sure it was her. Her tomb still draws crowds. Visitors customarily mark three X’s on the side of her grave in the hopes that her spirit will grant them a wish.
Other famous New Orleans cemeteries include The Carrollton Cemetery, established in 1849. It was divided into two sections, white and colored. The colored section had smaller plots and wooden tombstones with handwritten epitaphs. After Hurricane Katrina, this side of the cemetery lay scattered with bones. The white section consisted of elaborate vault tombs decorated with copings.
The Charity Hospital Cemetery, built in 1847, was a mass grave for the cities poor for nearly 150 years. Most of those buried within died during the Yellow Fever and Malaria epidemics that ravaged the city during the 19th century. Many of the dead were lain in unmarked graves. Bodies are no longer buried here and because dogs kept getting into the cemetery to dig up body parts, the gates were closed. The cemetery is now surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire.
The Cypress Grove Cemetery is dense with live oak and magnolia trees though it has few actual cypresses. Inside a large tomb for Chinese immigrants is a small fireplace where family members burn prayer notes for the deceased. Also in Cypress Grove is the grave of the first New Orleans firefighter to be killed in the line of duty. His name was Irad Ferry.