By David Hedges from Nola Tour Guide
Mark Twain, an American author and 19th-century steamboat pilot, published his memoir Life on the Mississippi, describing pre-Civil War New Orleans. He noted about the city of New Orleans that “to speak in broad, general terms, there is no architecture in New Orleans, except in the cemeteries.” Of course, he meant there were buildings (mostly made of wood), but nothing as grandiose as the cemeteries of New Orleans. Elaborate burial places were nothing new. Death was a marked occasion from the Egyptians to the Romans to medieval Europeans and eventually to the Americas. In chapter 42 of Life on the Mississippi, Twain dedicates the entire chapter to describing these ornate “Cities of the Dead.”
New Orleans cemeteries are famous for being above ground, “Why Are People Buried Above Ground in New Orleans?” read more here. The French founded the city on the muddy banks of the Mississippi. The new colonists faced death more regularly in the New World due to various causes like rampant disease, weather, and other unpredictable factors. When the citizens tried to bury their dead, the muddy ground made it difficult, and the residents found themselves combating high water tables that made it very difficult. Some of the first burials were around the levee systems, and water sometimes filled the graves. Even worse, church burials were tricky. Catholicism has deep roots in New Orleans due to the city’s French and Spanish roots, and when someone dies, specific rules and procedures must be followed. Peter B. Dedek, in The Cemeteries of New Orleans: A Cultural History, explains that because “[c]hurch burial was limited to a fortunate few,” there was the need for the “creation of a cemetery necessary for many of the city’s well-to-do residents'' (5-6). This resulted in the creation of St. Peter Street’s cemetery, one of the first sanctioned cemeteries in New Orleans. But by the 1780s, “St. Peter’s Cemetery had become overpopulated, and the city had grown up around it,” and present-day archaeologists had discovered not just “human remains, but the body parts of farm animals could also be found there” (Dedek 8). In addition to overpopulation, the city's residents were still battling mother nature when burying their dead. Something had to be done, and local authorities began to bury their dead above ground.
To combat flooding graves and address the growing population, the city began creating more ornate, above-ground tombs in their new graveyards. One example is St. Louis Cemetery #1, founded in 1788. This is a prime example of some of the first ornate tombs that would later populate the city’s graves. From time to time, the city would flood, and the cemetery was also affected, and people began to opt for above-ground tombs. After a while, with the flooding, burying the dead in the iconic tombs and spaces just made more sense. As above-ground graves gained traction, the more ornate above-ground tombs became symbols of economic status. Many famous graves are located here, including the famed Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.
While above-ground tombs might be considered exclusive to New Orleans, these cities of the dead were not limited to the New World, as there were other instances of burying the dead like this. One example is the Pėre Lachaise Cemetery in France. The Pėre Lachaise cemetery is outside of Paris and was founded around 1804. St. Louis #1 Cemetery was founded only a few decades earlier. The former colonial power's influence was still felt despite colonial New Orleans being given to the Spanish in the 1700s and later to the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. The Pėre Lachaise Cemetery had difficulty drawing people to call the cemetery their final resting place, especially, as Wikipedia explains, people “refused to have their graves in a place that had not been blessed by the Church” (“Pere Lachaise Cemetery”). The cemetery garnered attention when they moved Jean de la Fontaine and Moliere to their new resting places in Pere Lachaise, and as a result, the cemetery boomed in popularity (“Pere Lachaise Cemetery”). Elaborate resting places began to pop up, such as memorial gardens, mausoleums, a crematorium, a columbarium, and above-ground graves similar to what is found in the St. Louis cemeteries. This style would continue into the rest of the 19th century.
The best way to see this history is up close and personal. Currently St. Louis #2, St Louis #1 and Lafayette cemetery are closed. Here’s a list of the other cemeteries that are still open to check out. We recommend St. Louis Cemetery #3. Found in 1854, St. Louis #3 has many prime examples of ornate tombs that Mark Twain called “Cities of the Dead.” The graves here have also been used in the backdrops of numerous movies and books. It is also located in the historic neighborhood of Bayou St. John. There’s so much to do in Bayou St. John that discovering the neighborhood can be a day trip on its own!
Founded in 1854, the tombs in St. Louis #3 have more elaborate and stunning examples of marble 19th-century tombs and crypts than their predecessors. You can see a bit of everything in the cemetery, including ground family tombs and coping to wall vaults to multi-burial mausoleum. Tombs have architectural influences from Greek, Roman, Gothic, Egyptian, Baroque, and Byzantine traditions. Many tombs are made up of granite and precast concrete. A plethora of timeless sculptures can also be found throughout the cemetery. By the early 20th century, St. Louis #3 continued to grow, with tombs from all walks of life built by the city’s best architects. This includes the first modern mausoleum, the St. Mark Memorial, constructed in 1966; the St. Teresa Garden Mausoleum; and the Serenity Garden Columbarium. Many people are buried here, including photographer E. J. Bellocq, ragtime composer Paul Sarebresole, and painter Ralston Crawford.
While these cemeteries can show the evolution and grandeur of the 19th-century cemeteries, these aren’t the only locations worth visiting. Another cemetery worth visiting is St. Roch cemeteries. The St. Roch cemetery was established in 1874. It was founded by a German Catholic priest named Reverend Peter L. Thieves. He prayed to St. Roch during a Yellow Fever outbreak in 1868. Yellow Fever, a disease brought by mosquitoes, was not uncommon then. Yellow Fever waves and epidemics were not uncommon in America in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the south. According to NPR, New Orleans suffered a severe wave in 1853, where 8,000 people in New Orleans perished from the disease; this would help give rise to New Orlean’s cities of the dead. But when Yellow Fever struck the city in 1868, no one from Reverend's Thieves congregation got sick from the disease. As a result, he built the St. Roch chapel and cemetery in the saint’s honor. Today, the chapel at St. Roch is still actively used for miracles. It is still not uncommon to still find offerings left due to answered prayers of patrons. St. Roch cemetery is located at 1725 St. Roch Avenue in the historic St Roch Neighborhood, only miles from the French Quarter. While bike and motorized tours are forbidden, walking is allowed. To see the most updated information on the cemetery, visit the page here.
At the end of canal street, numerous other cemeteries are worth visiting that also showcase some of the most elaborate tombs. The first set of cemeteries is the St. Patrick’s Cemeteries. Like the St. Louis cemeteries, there is a trifecta. The oldest cemetery is Saint Patrick #1. Located near St. Patrick’s Church, this original cemetery was home to many New Orleans Irish immigrants. After various waves of Yellow Fever in the mid-19th century, two additional cemeteries were opened to account for the overflow. Some memorial gardens are littered amongst the tombs and are also worth visiting within these cemeteries.
While you are still at the end of Canal Street, you also want to visit the Greenwood and Cypress Grove cemeteries. Some exotic and grand examples comprise New Orleans's famous above-ground tombs. Starting with the Cypress Grove Cemetery, this grave site was built for the city’s volunteer firefighters. Some of the most iconic structures are the gate of Cypress Grove. A renowned city builder, Fredric Wilkinson continued the tradition of timeless architectural themes. Wilkinson opted to follow Egyptian Revival themes. At the entrance are two large white columns that tower over visitors. Many of the tombs are made up of granite and cast iron and are the final resting place of many well-known New Orleans residents and city mayors.
Nearby Cypress Grove is Greenwood Cemetery; this cemetery is also one of the largest ones in New Orleans. Like Cypress Grove, it is also home to New Orleans’s firefighters. At the center of this cemetery is the Firemen's monument, built in 1887 by the Firemen's Charitable Association. One of the most well-known graves is an elk statue on a green mound symbolizing the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. This mausoleum holds 18 tombs and was built in 1912—a green spot in a sea of stone.
If you’re interested in visiting cemeteries, there are some rules of etiquette to follow. The more essential rules are the following: first, you should respect the gravesites. These are the final resting places of individuals, not a playground. Avoid touching, marking, vandalizing, damaging, or misbehaving. In addition to being the final resting places of individuals, these tombs are centuries old and are very fragile. There was also a history of people marking the tomb of Marie Laveau in Lafayette Cemetery of #1, so visiting this cemetery is heavily regulated as a result.
NOLA Tour Guy offers a few options if you want to take a walking tour of the cemetery. The first is a free St. Louis #3 Self-Guided Tour to do on your own time. But, if you want to explore this iconic cemetery on a guided tour, NOLA Tour Guy offers daily tours.