Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thirty Days of Why I Love New Orleans - Day 2

The Cemeteries

                Now, many people might start with Café du Monde. I do love Café du Monde and their café au lait, beignets and people watching across from Jackson Square, but this is me.

                So we’re heading to the cemeteries.

                First of all, many places in Louisiana have these “Cities of the Dead” so we’ll stay in the French Quarter and the Garden District. If you’re there and can only see one, it should be St. Louis
                It was the first of three St. Louis cemeteries. One, two, and three, go figure. But it’s here where you’ll find the tomb that some swear belongs to Marie LaVeau, the Voodoo Queen, and some say is not where her remains actually reside. She had a daughter named Marie, so who knows? But, it’s accepted that her home in the City of the Dead is at St. Louis #1 and while you’re not legally supposed to deface a tomb, there are Xs on it and you can place a penny on the ground and turn around three times for her to grant you blessings.

                Never more does that term “decaying elegance” come more to mind than in the cemetery. Many of the vaults are still pristine and beautiful. Many are chipping and aged and create images of ghostly beings sweeping from tomb to tomb when dusk falls or when a mist rises.

                St. Louis #1 was opened in 1789. Close by is St. Louis #2—by 1829, St. Louis #1 was already filled up—a horrible yellow fever  epidemic had swept the city, speeding up the normal death rate. (In later years, room was made for some esteemed citizens of the city.) The Italian Society monument is the tallest and quite beautiful, as are other society vaults. Wrought iron surrounds some tombs; there are “oven” vaults in the walls, and just following the paths is fascinating as you discover just what interesting people found their eternal rest here.  The classic cult film “Easy Rider” had scenes filmed here and the cemetery stars in a few other movies.

                St. Louis #1 remains special to me for several reasons—it’s one of the first places I saw in Nola when I was a child and provided me with both nightmares and fascination ever since. The first year Connie Perry and I put on Writers for New Orleans—a workshop for writers that I host, at cost, just to bring money into the city after Katrina and the summer of storms—our friends who ran a carriage tour business brought our people here as one of the activities. It was so soon after the storm that the gates had not been locked at dusk and our group entered into the City of the Dead by night while our host told us history—true stories—more frightening than any ghost tale. I will never forget standing in the midst of the vaults beneath a half moon and thinking of the lives gone by—and appreciating life!

       St. Louis #2 was built circa 1823 as an extension of #1 and can be found between Bienville and St. Louis Street, and between Claiborne Ave and N. Robertson Street. There are Creole tombs here along with stunning monuments, more wrought iron, more broken vaults. Many of the most beautiful and ornate tombs here were designed by a man named Jacques Nicholas Bussiere De Pouilly who had come from France. He loved the grandeur of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery outside of Paris and put his love of the artwork of the tombs there into his own creations.

                St. Louis #3 can be found at 3421 Esplanade Avenue.  It was opened in 1856, and is a distance from the other two cemeteries. It is remarkable as well with its statuary and monuments. While parts of Esplanade are exceptionally beautiful, the city and I both recommend that newcomers
(and old comers!) go in groups or with specially designed tours. While Nola is one of our most unique and wonderful cemeteries, it is not without crime. Now, I’d say this if you were coming to Miami, too, New York, L.A., or just about anywhere; be careful where you go. Crime is a fact of life. That’s just the way it is.

    Heading to the Garden District you’ll find Lafayette Cemetery, peaceful and charming by day. It was laid out in 1833 to accommodate the residents of the Garden District. It was the second protestant cemetery to open in New Orleans. Confederate General Harry T Hays lies here along with many other notable luminaries. Fascinating and historic, Lafayette has great surroundings. From here, you can pop into the very wonderful Garden District Book Shop (2727 Prytania Street,) and perhaps dine at one of the city’s really wonderful restaurants, Commander’s Palace, right across from the cemetery entrance!

                Going beyond the French Quarter and the Garden District you’ll find Metairie Cemetery—certainly the most beautifully landscaped cemetery in the area. Walking among the trails of this vast cemetery is really akin to an afternoon at an art gallery—a pretty big gallery at that. It was opened in 1856 and the famous dead you’ll find here include Father Rouguette who was a missionary to the Choctaw and still esteemed for his acts of human kindness.  You’ll see Metairie Cemetery
along the road as you travel into the city from the airport, and you’ll also catch glimpses of Cypress Grove Cemetery, established in 1841 by the Firemen’s Charitable Association. It offers an incredible Egyptian-style gate as one enters. Right across the street you’ll find Greenwood Cemetery—an extension of Cypress Grove. You just can’t make enough room for the eternally dying dead. It offers a Civil War Monument and many other excellent examples of funerary art.

                Is it the art? Is it the continual wonder of what lies beyond? Is it just the way the moon falls over the tombs and angels and cherubs and crosses that guard the dead? There’s really no one answer or right answer; Nola’s cemeteries, the Cities of the Dead, are both fascinating and beautiful. They’ve given writers, artists, movie makers, and more endless resources upon which to draw. If you get to Nola, drop in on friends, enjoy the living—but don’t forget to visit the dead!  


Mike said...

I didn't get to tour the graveyards when I was there, but stuff like that is right up my alley.

Mary Ricksen said...

I won't be saying Bloody Mary in front of any mirrors myself. You never know!

Amanda Stevens said...

Wonderful post. I do so love New Orleans cemeteries. Well, cemeteries in general, but New Orleans is special in so many ways. Can't wait to read the new series! :)

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I enjoyed the post. I love old cemeteries. I haven't been to New Orleans, but I would love to one day see the city. Thanks for the virtual tour!!

Charlie Ashcroft said...

Great blog. I love this sort of stuff. If you enjoy this sort of thing, please check out my photo blog at I have posts about Nola cemeteries as well as Chicago Cemeteries including the famous Graceland Cemetery. Check it out!