Seeing 'Cities of the Dead'

November 03, 1991|By Los Angeles Daily News

NEW ORLEANS -- Sing along; you all know the tune:

They're creepy and they're kooky, mysterious and spooky, they're altogether ooky, the cemeteries.

Well, that might not be the world's best rhyme, but the sentiment matches the feeling in New Orleans' cemeteries, dubbed Cities of the Dead because of their resemblance to small suburbs.

Because the city is built on marshy swamp land 5 feet below sea level, coffins have a pesky way of floating to the surface, so the dead are buried above ground in tombs, temples and mausoleums that look pretty much like small towns.

Cemeteries were critically important throughout New Orleans' history, since yearly plagues of various kinds -- bubonic plague, malaria, yellow fever, cholera, typhus -- wiped out thousands of people.

In 1853, for example, 8,000 people died of yellow fever; another 2,700 died of it three years later. In 1856, cholera claimed more than 1,000 people and tuberculosis killed half that many.

The city's 31 cemeteries are testament to the fact that entire families were wiped out. On family tombs you can see names etched one after the other in an orderly fashion, family members who fell victim to the yearly scourge.

Visitors invariably wonder why the two problems (floating coffins and a periodic excess of bodies) couldn't both be solved by cremation. The answer is simple: The city was largely Catholic. The church did not allow cremation.

The tombs are simple or elaborate, depending on the wealth of the family and its social stature. The carvings are often symbolic -- an eye of God, the lamb of God, a tiny flying hourglass, a broken obelisk, an upside-down torch that symbolizes life snuffed out.

Wrought-iron chairs -- cemetery furniture, the precursor of patio furniture -- are placed in front of some tombs, so that on All Saint's Day, the family elders could sit and receive those wishing to pay respects.

Today the cemeteries are of both historical and current interest. Some family tombs are still used by the descendants; others are dormant, crumbling and nearly overgrown.

A warning from the New Orleans Tourist and Convention Bureau and various docents: Don't go alone to the cemeteries. There are said to be individual bad guys and roving bands of hoodlums ready to take your money, cameras and whatever else you have to offer.

There are plenty of organized, low-cost tours to each of the cemeteries. Call the non-profit Save Our Cemeteries at (504) 588-9357 to arrange a tour. The group is dedicated to promoting, preserving and protecting the city's historic cemeteries. Proceeds benefit tomb restoration.

Following is a sampling of the cemeteries and what you will find there:

* Chalmette National Cemetery, on Route 42 at Battle of New Orleans Chalmette Battlefield, about six miles from downtown New Orleans.

This cemetery is interesting for two reasons: It is on relatively high ground for New Orleans, so the graves are underground; and the former battlefield became the burial ground when the battle ceased. Hundreds of Louisiana soldiers from various wars since 1864 are buried here.

* St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, on North Rampart Street.

This is the oldest cemetery in the city, the repository of governors, mayors and officials of early Louisiana.

Buried here are Etienne de Bore, father of the sugar industry, and Homer Plessy of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1892 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that established the Jim Crow laws in the South (separate but equal for blacks and whites).

There is a tomb here for Marie Laveau, who was New Orleans' voodoo queen, but cemetery historians believe it is actually her daughter, also called Marie Laveau, who rests here. Those who believe in Marie Laveau's powers still scratch chalk X's on her tomb here.

* St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, on North Claiborne Avenue near Canal Street.

The remains of the original Marie Laveau are buried here. The confusion was natural, according to Brett Clesi, a board member of Save Our Cemeteries, because mother Laveau and daughter Laveau supposedly looked alike.

This cemetery is laid out in two squares, Mr. Clesi said, and one of squares is "the greatest monument to black achievement in the U.S. It became the place where free people of color built their mausoleums -- famous black political figures, novelists, entertainers. Walking through there is an incredible history book of black achievement."

* St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, 3421 Esplanade Ave.

This cemetery contains a lot of tombs from religious orders. Architect James Gallier Sr.'s memorial is also here.

* Lafayette Cemetery, 1400 Washington Ave., in the Garden District.

This typical 19th century urban cemetery and the area around it are featured in Anne Rice's trilogy, "Vampire Chronicles." Ms. Rice lives not far from the cemetery.

Judge Ferguson, of Plessy vs. Ferguson, the case mentioned above, is buried here, and it is the final resting place for many of the German, English and Irish immigrants who came to New Orleans.

Also notable here are the wall vaults -- the walls are 9 feet thick to accommodate bodies.

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