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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: There are at least three ways to see City of the Dead.
- Tour the cemetery as part of a larger tour such as the one I took: French Quarter & Cemetery Tour, 941 Decatur Street; New OrleansLegendaryWalkingTours.com
- Or you can go to the Visitor Center beside St. Louis Cemetery 1 and take a tour only of the cemetery. Address: Basin at St. Louis St., New Orleans, LA 70112; 504-482-5065; http://www.neworleansonline.com/directory/location.php?locationID=1945
- Another option: Go to Save Our Cemeteries and take that tour that begins at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church – International St. Jude Shrine, 411 N Rampart St, New Orleans, LA 70112; http://www.saveourcemeteries.org/st-louis-cemetery-no-1-tour/
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!