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As a child living in New Orleans, I found the cemeteries scary. I often had to walk past the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery on Louisa St or the St. Roch Cemetery.  During my daylight jaunts, I might sometimes shortcut through the cemeteries but at night, no way. In spite of my caution I took the cemeteries for granted. They were just a part of New Orleans. But each of the New Orleans cemeteries have a unique and interesting history that, as an adult, I have learned to revere.


The main road into St. Roch Cemetery
St. Roch Cemetery

St. Roch Cemetery is one of the most unique cemeteries in a  city filled with strange cemeteries. It's genesis was when  Father Peter Leonard Thevis arrived in New Orleans in the midst of the yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

Father Thevis was a German priest chosen to guide the flock of  Holy Trinity Church, a mostly German parish. 

Traditionally, yellow fever took its highest toll from the Irish, German, Italian and other emigrants who were flooding into the city during this period.  Longtime residents had aquired more immunity to the deadly scourge.















The death rates were believed to average about 400 per week during these epidemics. I recall my grandmother,  who was a preteen during the next epidemic of  1878, telling of the "Dead Wagons" who traveled down the streets calling out "Bring out your dead."  He dumped all the bodies in the back of his wagon and hauled them out to the cemeteries for a quick burial.




"Thank You" offerings at St. Roch
Father Thevis prayed to St. Roch, patron saint of plague victims,  if none of his congregation died of the dread Yellow Jack, he would build a cemetery for his parish and a chapel to honor St. Roch.  According to coroner's records, none of the Holy Trinity parishioners died in either the epidemic of 1867 or 1878.  Father Theves kept that promise as evidenced by the sign above the chapel, "Erected by Vow 1875." 

Today, visitors come to see this miraculous city of the dead. They marvel at the tombs that mimic residences of the living. Some of the tombs are small and simple others ornate. And there are the mausoleums, large rooms filled with coffins, as well.

The burials date back to the earliest day  and often are in foreign languages like the Grunder Tomb where Franz Grunder was interred in 1877.  Some come to pray to St. Roch for favors as they  "make" the "Stations of the Cross" carved into walls thick enough to hold many coffins in between the life-sized stations depicting Jesus on his way to crucifixion. Behind the first cemetery there is a second one attesting to the many souls "residing" here.


Grunder Tomb, one of the older graves
The cemetery is said to be haunted  by a large black dog. Not unusual as St Roch was reputed to have survived  a plague in the middle ages and was aided by his dog which is depicted standing at the saint's side in the stature gracing the alter of the chapel.

The cemetery is fascinating but the main draw is the small Gothic revival chapel at the rear of the cemetery. More specifically, one small room inside this chapel. The room is filled with offerings of thanks to St. Roch for cures or favors granted.

They are not the usual assortment of flowers you might expect. There are life-like limbs, arms, legs, hands, feet, locks of hair, prosthetics, crutches and other objects related to the worst infirmities.

Some of the offerings are undecipherable. But all have been left by someone who was granted a favor by the saint. The floor is filled with bricks carved with a "Merci" or "Thanks" engraved on them. This is a place of hope surrounded by death.

If you find that strange, remember you are in New Orleans.





Marker at the gate of St. Patrick #1
St. Patrick Cemeteries

Germans weren't the only emigrants filling the Crescent City back in that era. Irish sought refuge from the Potato Famine and the many other problems faced in the Emerald Isle.  There are three St. Patrick Cemeteries all located near one another at the foot of Canal Street near City Park Ave.

The Irish built their first cemetery in 1841 and naturally named it for their patron saint.  I visited it many times as a child and found it a peaceful place. It's where my family is interred. St Patrick No. 2 and No. 3 followed shortly after.

Unlike the Germans of Holy Trinity Parish, the Irish were severely decimated by the yellow fever epidemics. In just one month, August 1853,  11,000 people were laid to rest in the St. Patrick Cemeteries, most in St. Patrick  No. 1.  

This accounts for the vast number of  just-above-the-ground graves there. Possibly it also accounts for the ghost stories of moans heard near the rear wall of the cemetery at night even over the sounds of traffic. The other ghost story told about this cemetery is of a white haired woman who follows visitors around the cemetery warning them to be respectful, a rull all of  us should follow when visitng any cemetery.





One of the many mausoleums at Metarie Cemetery
Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery

The Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery rambles across what was once the site of the Metairie Racetrack and Jockey Club. Like much of New Orleans society, they kept membership among the old Creole families and refused  membership to American millionaire, Charles Howard , in the mid 19th century. Howard swore revenge and claimed he would "bury the track and the club."

 The Civil War shut the track and club down temporarily and Reconstruction drove it to the verge of  bankruptcy. Thus In l872, Howard was able to fulfill his vow and buy the track and club and turn it into a cemetery for the richest of New Orleans citizens.  

Howard's eternal resting place is one of the cemetery's most ornate mausoleums guarded by a statue of a man holding a finger to his lips to indicate respectful silence for those who rest here.


Washington Artillery Tomb
The cemetery's most famous "resident" is General P.T.G. Beauregard who is interred in the Army of Tennessee section. (See Museums and Civil War Trail for more about Beauregard)

When I visited here, it was not like walking among a "city of the dead" it was more like a Las Vegas for the well-to-do deceased filled with elaborate mausoleums resembling ornate hotels.

Along with the many mausoleums, there are several group tombs where members of a specific group or society are buried.

I walked for blocks and never saw another living person. Just those rows of beautifully decorated mausoleums. It was kind of spooky.

Speaking of spooks, legend says that a 19th century police chief named David Hennesey, who had been murdered in 1890 supposedly by a group of  19 Italian men.

Reportedly Hennesy guards the cemetery. The Italians were found "not guilty" and an enraged mob broke 11 of them out of jail and lynched them in retaliation. This was when the word "Mafia" entered into common usage in the United States.




Not Marie Laveau's tomb but judging by the Xs and
offerings another respected Voodoo personage
St. Louis Cemetery  No. 1

Perhaps I've saved the best for last. St. Louis No. 1 is the oldest existing cemetery in New Orleans and the fourth built in the city. It dates back to the late 1700s. It was divided into sections for Catholics, non-Catholics, and Negroe slaves. The gens de couleur libres (Free People of Color) were buried with whites in the section designated for whichever religion they practiced. Yes, I know New Orleans old customs are confusing to the modern world.

The tombs bear the names of many of prominent old Creole families.  Bernard de Marigny, who introduced  the game of craps to the United States; Paul Morphy, renowned  chess champions and Delphine LaLaurie, infamous for her torture and murder of her slaves; and in modern times, Mayer Dutch Morial, the first African American mayor of New Orleans. are interred there. 

Burials are still being allowed in the old cemetery. Nicolas Cage has purchased a plot and had a ornate tomb resembling a pyramid constructed for his final resting place. 

Perhaps the most infamous and most visited tomb is the one reputed to be the final resting place of Marie Laveau,  the Glapion family crypt. I use "resting place" lightly as it is reputed that her spirit roams the cemetery  along with that of a black cat a dog,  the Voodoo serpent Loa, Damballa, and many unknown spirits.

Nicholas Cage's tomb
Devotees of Voodoo  visit her tomb and place gifts at it to thank her for favors received. They also make three Xs on it and turn around three times to have a wish granted. Recently, the city passed a law making it a crime to mark her grave or any of the others in the cemetery with an X. (for more on Voodoo click here)

Several other graves are similarly marked and gifted. Perhaps more recent voodoo priestesses who are also recognized by modern day practitioners of the old religion. Another common custom, not only in St. Louis Cemetery, but in many others is the leasing of gifts, such as Mardi Gras beads, doubloons and other trinkets, on loved ones' graves as a love offering.  

As you might guess, St. Louis No. 1 is a scary place. No, not because of the ghosts. They can't hurt you. It's because of its location next to the former Iberville Housing Project which is not the safest neighborhood in the city. When I visited early in the day--it closes at 3PM--I hid my purse and other valuables and locked the car taking only my one camera and a wallet with my phone and a bit of cash. Unfortunately, I was too cautious with what I left locked up, my purse held my car keys. Fortunately, I hide a spare under the car so I had to scramble around on the ground retrieving the key to open my locked car.

All went well and I enjoyed my visit to these old "Cities of the Dead." I only wished I had more time to visit the forty or so other cemeteries that help tell the history of this mysterious old city.  One good way to peep into these mystical places is on a Voodoo and Cemetery Tour.


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