St. Louis Cemetery #1 at night, one of the cities of the dead. Photo courtesy of Robin Lovins and used with permission.

Cities of the Dead – New Orleans

By Dixielord

Necropolis, cities of the dead, the thing of cheap horror comics and cheaper horror films. The lairs of zombies, vampires, ghouls, and more. However, cities of the dead actually exist in reality, outside of pulp fiction and penny dreadfuls. The most well-known cities of the dead lie in New Orleans. In fact, with its history of yellow fever and fires, New Orleans qualifies as a city of the dead itself.

St. Louis cemetery #1 at night, one of the cities of the dead

St. Louis #1, one of New Orleans cities of the dead

New Orleans suffered yellow fever epidemics on an almost regular basis until 1905, the year of the last outbreak in the United States. More than 40,000 people died between 1817 and 1905 in New Orleans alone. Add to that two great fires that each destroyed most of the city and left huge death tolls and you can understand why it is a city of cemeteries.

A line of tombs on Lafayette Cemetery #1, one of New Orleans Cities of the Dead

A line of tombs on Lafayette Cemetery #1, one of New Orleans Cities of the Dead

New Orleans cemeteries, or cities of the dead, are well-known tourist attractions. The above ground vaults and tombs are a European custom, well suited for the most European city in America. The custom is a left over from the Spanish control of the city and, in a town that is barely above sea level (and below in some areas) and surrounded by water, it's a way to save space.

It's a popular misconception that the low sea level and high ground water content forced New Orleanians to bury their dead like this, but it's actually just the European custom. While it's true there have been incidents of bodies washing up during floods, it's not a major concern. In fact, there are ground burials in New Orleans. Even in St. Louis Cemetery #1 you can find the rare ground burial.

Regardless of the reason for the above ground burial, the grave yards are a sight to behold. They are worth a trip to New Orleans just to visit them. I just got back from a trip where I visited five New Orleans cemeteries: Metairie Cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, and St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. If you do go, you will need to book a tour to visit St. Louis #1 as the Catholic Diocese has closed both it and St. Louis #2 due to vandalism. St. Louis #1 is the only one of the two you can visit and only with an approved tour guide. Most of the other cemeteries you can visit on your own, but check first as rules and laws do change. And please be respectful.

All of the New Orleans cities of the dead contain beautiful tombs and statuary. There is also a lot of history buried in New Orleans vaults, and a strong connection to horror fans. St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest graveyard in New Orleans and is still in operation. Within its walls lie the tomb of Homer Plessy (of Plessy vs Ferguson), chess champion Paul Morphy, and New Orleans' first black mayor Ernest Morial. It's also the final resting place of Marie Laveau, the New Orleans voodoo priestess, and Delphine Lalaurie, the socialite who gained infamy for torturing and murdering her household slaves. Modern horror fans are probably most familiar with the two from their appearances in American Horror Story: Coven, played by Angela Basset and Kathy Bates respectively. Vandals have been painting triple Xs in Marie's tomb for a long time. If you visit, please do not do this! It is vandalism, and it damages the tomb. Plus, you will be arrested if caught.

Tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis Cemetery- cities of the dead

Tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis Cemetery

Tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis Cemetery- cities of the dead

Close up of plaque on the tomb of Marie Laveau in St. Louis Cemetery

Movie fans might also be interested to know that a scene of the cult classic Easy Rider was filmed inside St. Louis #1. In fact, that film is the reason filming is not allowed in any catholic cemeteries in the city. Director Dennis Hopper filmed without permission of the church, and the scene filmed included drugs, nudity, and sex. The drug use and sex may or may not be simulated as, by all accounts, the cast partied heavily while in town. The scene also involved star Peter Fonda climbing on some of the statuary in the cemetery, basically climbing on the graves of the dead. The Catholic Diocese didn't find this amusing at all and banned all filming.

St. Louis Cemetery #1 statuary used in the movie Easy Rider- Cities of the dead

St. Louis Cemetery #1, statuary used in the movie Easy Rider

So without being able to film in New Orleans where does a good movie company go for above ground tombs. Most film crews now use Lafayette Cemetery #1. Located in the Garden District of New Orleans, Lafayette is another officially opened in 1833 although it was used before that date for burials. Like St. Louis #1, it is still active and burials happen every year. Its name comes from the fact that it was originally in the town of Lafayette before New Orleans annexed the area in 1852, and it hold many of the unfortunate people who perished from yellow fever. In 1853 over 600 of the 3,000 deaths due to an outbreak found themselves residents of Lafayette cemetery, That's 600 people in only one year, in only one of the cities of the dead.

Lafayette has several reported hauntings, including ghosts who will tug at your clothing if you sit on a certain bench, people passing out when leaning against one of the outer walls, and the haunting of a screaming girl. The story goes that the girl, on a dare, had to run to a certain grave site in the cemetery and shove a stick in the ground after dark, and then run back. After her two companions successfully completed the dare, she had to follow through. She was, however, extremely scared, but she ran into the cemetery. After a few moments, her companions heard a scream and ran away terrified. The next day the girl was found at the grave, dead of apparent fright. They also found the stick shoved into the ground - and through her dress. When she ran away she felt the tug and thought the dead were pulling her down. Does the story sound familiar? I have heard it many times in my youth, and even seen an adaptations of the story on Rod Sterling's Night Gallery. Supposedly Sterling visited New Orléans and Lafayette looking for ghost stories, and this was one he chose to adapt.

Metarie Cemetery's weeping angel or Angel of Grief- Photo Courtesy of Robin Lovins

Weeping angel or Angel of Grief in Metarie Cemetery, one of the Cities of the Dead

The outer walls, where it's rumored people faint and wake up disoriented, and confused, (couldn't be the New Orleans heat could it?) are, of course, used to house corpses themselves. From the inside of the cemetery you can see the burial cabinets that make up the wall, called ovens by many due to the extreme heat that can build up in the crypts. During summer the heat can reach reported temperatures of over 300 degrees inside the crypts, effectively cremating the bodies inside. Since the crypts are all intended as multi use, with old remains pushed into a shaft in the back and new bodies taking their place, the heat helps expedite the process. Law and custom say that once sealed, a tomb cannot be opened for a year and a day, at which time the original occupant is hopefully reduced to a much smaller mass. If the body isn't fully decayed. Well, maybe we can tackle that topic in a different article.

Monument to the Army of Tennessee at Metarie Cemetery, one of the cities of the dead

Monument to the Army of Tennessee at Metarie Cemetery

With the ban on filming in Catholic cities of the dead, Lafayette became the go to place for Hollywood. Lafayette is considered the most filmed cemetery in New Orleans. Movies filmed here include Double Jeopardy and Dracula 2000, and many television shows, including American Horror Story, The Vampire Diaries, The Originals, and even NCIS: New Orleans, have filmed scenes inside. The Lafayette city of the dead was also the fictional burial ground for the Mayfair Witches from the books by Anne Rice. Anne herself staged a jazz funeral for herself to promote the release of her vampire novel Memnoch the Devil.

Lafayette Cemetery

Lafayette Cemetery #1, one of the Cities of the Dead

Lafayette is in a good neighborhood and is safe to visit on your own. However, a guided tour full of information is available and will ensure that you don't miss any of the historic tombs, haunted areas, and filming locations inside its walls. Lafayette occupies a city block in the historic garden district, but that block contains over 1,000 burial plots and currently has a population of over 7,000 inhabitants. Unlike cities of the living, the cities of the dead never see a population decrease.

Those are just two of the five cities of the dead that I visited recently in a week-long trip to New Orleans. We also visited Metairie, St. Louis #3, and Greenwood cemeteries on our own (without a tour guide). As such, we enjoyed the beautiful stone work but didn't learn as much about its past or citizens. We wanted to visit more, especially Holt and St. Roch cemeteries but simply didn't have time. Also St. Louis #2 is not open to the public, along with Odd Fellows Rest, which reportedly has some unique and beautiful statuary. We were also advised not to visit Lafayette #2 as it was in a bad neighborhood and our guide simply said he wasn't taking us there.

Statuary in Metairie Cemetery a New Orleans city of the dead

Statuary in Metairie Cemetery a New Orleans city of the dead

If you go to New Orleans, you have to take the time and visit the cities of the dead. Hell, it's worth a trip to New Orleans just to see the cemeteries. Use a tour guide when you can, they are inexpensive for what you get. Plus, the guides are very knowledgeable, and using one supports the local economy. The non-profit Save Our Cemeteries, runs tours including a night-time tour of St. Louis #1. This is a great group that uses the tours to help restore and preserve the cities' burial grounds. There are several good tour groups operating tours of the other cemeteries, as well as tours of the city, haunted tours, voodoo tours, and vampire tours. Pick one, dress to survive the heat, bring a bottle of water, and be respectful to the citizens. Eventually all of us will move into our own city of the dead.

To learn more about films when in town, consider Nola original movie tours, Bloody Mary's haunted New Orleans tours, or Haunted History Tours. All three tours involve the cemeteries to some extent, and I used all three in my last New Orleans trip and give my seal of approval.

Post Script: It looks like Save Our Cemeteries is now offering limited tours of St. Louis # 2. Too late for my trip but not for yours.

All photos courtesy of Robin Lovins and used with permission.

Posted by Allen Alberson

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