On a hot overcast day earlier this week I joined a group of tourists outside Reverend Zombie’s House of Voodoo, in the French Quarter of New Orleans for one of the city’s famous cemetery tours.
We were given fans with grinning skulls and led by a tour guide named Ernie, who was dressed in all white and carried a large black umbrella. As we headed off down St. Peters Street, past green homes with pink shutters and pinks homes with cream shutters, towering black storm clouds began to fill the sky to the west. It seemed like the perfect weather for touring the nation’s oldest active cemetery.
“In New Orleans, we first started burying our loved ones at the river, in the levees,” said Ernie. It was the only high ground around. Of course, in big storms the levees would breach, or break, which meant decaying corpses were floating around the streets.
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“So in around 1721 a cemetery was established right here,” continued Ernie, pointing to a picturesque three-story home across the street from a bar called the Gold Mine Saloon. This was the St. Peter’s Street Cemetery, which was the city’s first cemetery. In it were buried, among others, the numerous individuals who died in the city’s reoccurring yellow fever and cholera outbreaks. In 1788, the Great New Orleans Fire destroyed more than 850 homes, 80 percent of the city. A serious cholera epidemic broke out and the St. Peters Street Cemetery filled up. Local physicians were worried that the cemetery’s proximity to the city might cause another epidemic and officials ordered a new cemetery be built just outside the border of the city. This was the St. Louis Cemetery, it opened in 1789, just six years after the end of the Revolutionary War and is still in use today.
We walked towards the cemetery, heading north on St. Peters as dark clouds began to spit rain. In Louis Armstrong Park we stopped in Congo Square, where during the 18th century slaves gathered to sing, dance and play African-influenced music that had been banned in other parts of the colonies. By now, big fat drops were falling and the sky to the west looked very ominous. Ernie opened his umbrella and many of the tourists wrapped themselves in plastic rain tarps. “We have two choices,” said Ernie. “Go to the visitor center and wait for the rain to pass or continue on to the cemetery.” The decision was unanimous: “The cemetery!”
The St. Louis Cemetery occupies just one square block but holds the remains of several thousand people. The cemetery now has two other parts, St. Louis #2, located just a few blocks away and St. Louis #3, about a mile to the north. Among the people buried in St. Louis #1 are Etienne de Bore, an 18th century sugar magnate and the first mayor of New Orleans, Homer Plessy, the plaintiff from the famous 1896 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation and Bernard de Marigny, a French-Creole playboy who brought the game of craps to the city. Graves here are more like mausoleums, hulking concrete blocks that rise ten or fifteen feet high. Many are made of red brick or white marble, which is imported from Europe. Paths between tombs are narrow, if someone is coming the other way you must press yourself flat against the tomb so they can pass.
There are no coffins, Ernie tells us, which is mainly an issue of saving space. Remains used to be buried in large bags made of natural fibers such as hemp, but now industrial strength trash bags are used. Temperatures inside the tombs are around 120 degrees in summer, a condition that turns them into “rotisserie cookers”, said Ernie. Typically, someone will buy a mausoleum for the whole family, thus one tomb can hold any number of people. “Check the back of the Times Picayune,” explained Ernie, “Right next to lost pets, I am sure you can find some tombs for sale.” That it was encouraged to buy your grave beforehand was hard for some of our group to swallow, but not all. A man from Mexico said that he too had already purchased his family tomb.
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Our next stop was the tomb of Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ famous Voodoo Queen. As if on cue, thunder rolled across the sky and streamers of warm rain lashed down upon our group. Marie Laveau was believed to have been born in the French Quarter in 1794, the daughter of a white planter and a free Creole woman of color. In 1819, she married a Haitian named Jacques Paris. One year later Paris died under mysterious circumstances. Marie Laveau became a hairdresser, catering to wealthy white families. She had 15 children with a man named Louis Christopher Dumesnil de Glapion. Rumors abound about Mary Laveau’s voodoo but little can be substantiated. Apparently, she owned a snake named Zombi, after an African God. But she was also a practicing Roman Catholic. Several scholars believe her powers of divination came from the extensive network of informers she developed while working as a hairdresser. Some say she also ran a brothel, and picked up information there too. She died in her home in 1881, at the age of 98. A number of people reported having seen Mary Laveau after her death.
By the time we got to Mary Laveau’s grave lightning was flashing across the sky and the thunder was like one continuous growl. The grave itself was a large white marble block, speckled with graffiti, most of which consisted of Xs in groups of three. These were from other visitors who, attempting to summon voodoo, follow a series of steps that also includes spinning around three times, knocking on the tomb, rubbing it and hollering at it. On the ground beneath the tomb were a sloppy pile of offerings, anything from shoes, cigars, soda, booze, breath mints, shells and coins to the crown of a pineapple and a tiny alabaster frog.
The rain was coming down hard and just then a bolt of lightning hit quite close. Some of the tourists looked frightened. “Now, we are going to go to the information center,” said Ernie, and the tour became a lot less exciting.