Fascinating from any angle: St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans

Forming a contrast to the City of the Dead is the backdrop: modern yellow building and palm tree.

A modern yellow building and palm tree provide an interesting contrast to the tombs of St. Louis Cemetery 1.

As a child, my parents would drive my sisters and me from the little town of Hahnville, Louisiana, to the big city of New Orleans — to see the city, to take a mini-vacation, and even to buy groceries at Schwegmann’s.  But on every trip, every trip, we passed cemeteries where above-ground tombs fascinated me even at an early age.

It was not, however, until this year, 2016, that I joined a tour group that had obtained permission to take visitors inside.  Under new rules passed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, ALL visitors to St. Louis Cemetery 1 may only be admitted with a licensed guide.  Families of loved ones buried there must obtain a pass for entry into the cemetery. Of course, I asked Why?  And I was given one response:  vandalism.  

St. Louis Cemetery 1 is frequently referred to as “City of the Dead,” a place, according to our guide, where rich and poor were entombed in its confines.  The wealthy had individual structures that could accommodate many family members one by one, as the time came for burial.  So, imagine layers, if you will, inside the tombs where one body would be moved over or pushed to the back to allow space for another person.

One tomb could accommodate several family members.

One tomb could accommodate several family members.

I was pretty amazed by this tour.  Perhaps it was the awe of the place.  Or the ruinous condition.  Or the variety of materials, heights, shapes.  Whatever it was, I was spellbound. But not for long.  As I listened to the tour guide who mentioned that we had only a few minutes to see what he could show us accompanied by his warnings not to stray from the group, I grabbed hold of my camera and started snapping.  So much so, I might mention, that I missed much of what he was saying. But I could see one thing for sure:  The City of the Dead offers amazing sights from any and all angles.

A simple burial spot with a singular iron cross -- St. Louis Cemetery 1

A simple burial spot with a singular iron cross — St. Louis Cemetery 1

Looking down an alley at St. Louis Cemetery 1

Looking down an alley at St. Louis Cemetery 1

Ravages of time and weather and vandals have certainly taken their toll on these treasured tombs.  And it’s the latter devastation that has now closed the cemetery to random wanderings.  The “peeling away,” if you can even call it that, reveals the building materials of many of these structures.

Exposed brick and plaster on this tomb with evidence of an arched cavity

Exposed brick and plaster on this tomb with evidence of an arched cavity

Many tombs in St. Louis Cemetery 1 had their “skin” peeled away, revealing inner stacks of bricks covered in layers of plaster.

Others have maintained their dignity with stately impediments, intact plaster (although most were pretty moldy), and chiseled names of the original inhabitants.  According to our guide, tombs were opened and re-opened to allow more and more family members to be laid to rest when the time came.

Some tombs remain preserved with ironwork, carving, and architectural details.

Some tombs remain preserved with ironwork, carving, and architectural details.

Pretty detail on a tomb in the City of the Dead.

Pretty detail on a tomb in the City of the Dead.

Nature, too, has had her way with the structures.  Hurricane Katrina made sure that not even the dead were exempt from high waters.  And the evidence of cracking and crazing from natural causes was everywhere.  Broken bricks and shards of stone, piled willy nilly by the whims of storms and blazing heat, formed random paths even among the “avenues” of the rich.

Nature finds a way to get into cracks and cause damage -- while remaining pretty!

Nature finds a way to get into cracks and cause damage — while remaining pretty!

On the back side of the City of the Dead where the poor were buried, arched indentations reveal how bodies were stacked one atop the other in a condominium of sorts — multiple layers, multiple rows.

In the back of the cemetery, the poor were buried, stacked one on top of another rather than in individual tombs.

In the back of the cemetery, the poor were buried, stacked one on top of another rather than in individual tombs.

Destruction seemed less severe if iron fences guarded the tombs.  Perhaps these iron surrounds kept vandals at a distance while guarding the deceased with spikes and spires.

Decorative ironwork frames a family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery 1, New Orleans.

Decorative ironwork frames a family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery 1, New Orleans.

Fencing around a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery 1

Fencing around a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery 1

Artful ironwork frames delicate carving on this tomb at St. Louis Cemetery 1

Artful ironwork frames delicate carving on this tomb at St. Louis Cemetery 1

Row of fencing, St. Louis Cemetery 1

Row of fencing, St. Louis Cemetery 1

Atop some of the finest stood stone statuary — people thinking or angels praying or priests waving blessings over the deceased.  Some tombs were topped with crosses reaching toward heaven.

Some toppers remain on the "roof" of the tombs.

Some toppers remain on the “roof” of the tombs.

My tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 ended all too soon.  As I realized when our time was up, many stories remained to be told.  And many photos are still waiting to be taken.  But one thing was clear:  In my opinion, City of the Dead needs to remain for generations to come.  And everyone must share in its protection.  Not just to honor those who are entombed.  But also to preserve the fascinating structures themselves.

An iron cross in St. Louis Cemetery 1

An iron cross in St. Louis Cemetery 1

 

Note:  There are at least three ways to see City of the Dead.

Hope you’ve enjoyed my tour of St. Louis Cemetery 1.  If you’d like to see more of the places we saw in New Orleans, Louisiana, click here.  And thanks for traveling with us!

–Rusha

About Oh, the Places We See

Met at University of Tennessee, been married for 47 years, and still passionate about travel whether we're volunteering with Habitat Global Village, combining work at Discovery with pleasure, or just seeing the world. Hope you'll join us as we try to see it all while we can!
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16 Responses to Fascinating from any angle: St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans

  1. Such a lovely place. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  2. I too love exploring above-ground cemeteries, and I’m always fascinated by ruinous buildings, tombstones, or anything built by man but overtaken by nature. This looks like an amazing place to visit. Thanks for sharing! ~ Cathy

    • Thanks for taking a look, Cathy. I’ve become fascinated by old cemeteries of late, not for their macabre setting but for their art! So many interesting statues, carvings, etc. And the older the better. You’d love this place but you may have some in your area that are prettier. This one is sort of stark but classy.

      • I don’t know of any in my area that are this interesting, but who knows, I may be totally in the dark. I’ve seen cemeteries like these in Europe, especially Greece and France, but not many in the USA. 🙂

  3. I’ve been to the NOLA cemeteries Rusha, and your photos give a real feel them. I didn’t know that about the permits, but even though you can’t just walk in anymore, it’s probably a good idea. Sadly, in addition to vandals, they had gotten to be a good spot for opportunistic muggers as well. But, this is all part and parcel of New Orleans. I wonder how many creepy book and movie scenes have been set in one of these cemeteries? ~James

    • Thanks for the comment, James. I’ll bet a lot of movies have used this and other cemeteries in the area for movies. I hadn’t really thought of the mugger aspect, though, until you mentioned it. Yikes! Another reason not to be in a cemetery — after dark or alone . . . any time!

  4. Wow, fascinating post Rusha!

  5. Valentina says:

    People can never leave things alone. In Europe we are experiencing robbery in cemeteries especially for copper items due to the high demand on the market for copper and then we have religious groups who don’t agree with what was there before them.

  6. I don’t think I’d ever have guessed the reason for the locked cemetery – but treasures need to be protected.

  7. Thank you for sharing your trip because I will probably not get to see it in person, and it is certainly fascinating. I understand the toll nature and time has taken on these structures, but I will never, ever understand why people have to destroy cemeteries. What, you have anger concerning concrete or wrought iron? These people, rich and poor, contributed to the history of that city and therefore our country – let them rest in peace.

    • My sentiments exactly, Judy. I don’t understand vandalism. Some of it, unfortunately, occurred by ordinary tourists who just wanted a little piece to take home! I hope these cemeteries (and there are several) continue to be protected and appreciated. Thanks for the comment.

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