A cemetery in New Orleans

There are few cities with as great a reputation for decadence as New Orleans. If you want rich, fatty, and extravagant foods, you can hardly do better than the Crescent City. Alcohol flows freely, too, and almost any desire of the flesh can be indulged for a modest fee (sometimes payable in cheap plastic beads). But decadence in the original, non-metaphorical sense is also a regular fixture in this city whose past is littered with pirates, devastating fires, and horrific murders. There has been a lot of death and destruction in New Orleans, and the associated signs of physical decay—whether of buildings or of bodies—are everywhere. Particularly striking to many visitors are the city’s numerous old cemeteries filled with creepy-looking aboveground tombs. Whereas death is usually kept hidden, buried out of sight, New Orleans gives residents and visitors constant reminders of the impermanence of life.

The Dead Shall Rise Again

Why aren’t the dead in New Orleans buried underground as they are in most of the rest of the country? Tour guides are fond of explaining (and sometimes embellishing) the practice to shocked tourists. The main issue, they explain, is that New Orleans is situated slightly below sea level. Because of this, the water table is quite high. When early European settlers put coffins under six feet of earth, they found that the water level would often rise above them, especially during the city’s frequent floods. Since the coffins were filled with air, the water sometimes pushed them up through the earth, causing both a gruesome sight and a health hazard. To keep the coffins underground, holes were drilled in the lid to let air escape, and the coffins were weighted down with rocks and sand. But this was only partially successful, and in any case the saturated corpses did not decompose properly, leading to unsanitary conditions. The only solution was to bury the dead above ground.

Tour guides seldom mention that above-ground burial was a common practice in both France and Spain, where many of the early settlers were from. Even without the resurfacing coffins—which, by the way, were the exception rather than the rule—this practice may well have been adopted simply to keep with tradition. In any case, this method is still widely used today, even though the water table has dropped considerably over the past two centuries as nearby marshes and swamps were drained.

A Bone in the Oven

The first cemetery in New Orleans designed for aboveground burial was the St. Louis #1 cemetery, which opened in 1789. Some accounts claim it was modeled after Paris’s famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, and there can be no doubt that the two bear a strong resemblance to each other. But Père-Lachaise wasn’t used as a cemetery until 1804, so that resemblance may be coincidental. Be that as it may, there is a significant difference that goes beyond the superficial similarities. At Père-Lachaise, the visible structures are, for the most part, just monuments; the bodies themselves are usually placed in vaults in the floors of the tombs. In New Orleans, however, bodies are usually placed inside the walls of the tombs. Because of the hot, subtropical climate, the tomb then effectively becomes an oven, and the high heat causes the body to decompose rapidly in a process that has been compared to a slow cremation. Within about a year, only bones are left.

Just as an oven would not be constructed to bake a single loaf of bread, the tombs in New Orleans cemeteries are used again and again. The specifics vary depending on the exact design of the tomb, but a typical scenario is that after a year, the bones of the departed are swept into an opening in the floor of the tomb, which is then ready for its next occupant. It is a common practice to bury all the members of a family—or multiple families—in the same tomb, with names and dates added to a plaque or headstone as necessary. This procedure is not only sanitary and efficient; it also avoids the problem of growing real estate needs as time goes on.

No Walk in the Park

St. Louis #1 (there are, by the way, a #2 and #3 as well) is the oldest and most famous of about 15 aboveground cemeteries in and around New Orleans. Just as Jim Morrison’s grave attracts visitors to Père-Lachaise, St. Louis #1 has its own star: Marie Laveau, the Voodoo queen. Or, I should say, it has a tomb that many people believe contains her remains—no one is quite sure. But this uncertainty doesn’t stop legions of admirers from leaving offerings and marking the tomb with X’s in a supposed Voodoo ritual that is in fact apocryphal. This is just one of the cemetery sites associated with Voodoo practices—some genuine, some not.

While you may not encounter any ghosts or Voodoo rituals in the cemeteries of New Orleans, you are very likely to encounter thieves, drug dealers, and other ne’er-do-wells. Every single brochure, visitor’s guide, and concierge will warn you, repeatedly and in the strongest possible terms, not to enter the cemeteries alone or at night. Some careless tourists have unwittingly become permanent residents—enough said. That’s not to say you can’t safely visit the cemeteries, just go in a group with a tour guide, during daylight hours.

The cemeteries of New Orleans are often called “cities of the dead.” Not only do the tombs look like buildings, but the cemeteries are organized with streets (and street signs) much like the cities of the living. And it seems somehow appropriate that in New Orleans the decay of death faintly mirrors the decadence of life. That continuity between this life and the next is strangely comforting.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 31, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on February 7, 2005.

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