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Skulking through the cemeteries of New Orleans

Touring the dead centre of New Orleans is actually a thing! A proper, organised, pay the guide, thing to do and one which is morbidly fascinating to many tourists. And me.

Driving into the city you see tombs of all shapes and sizes rising out of the ground. Why, I wondered, almost stupidly because it makes perfect sense…

St Louis cemetery New Orleans

Sunlight plays onto the vaults in St Louis Cemetery Number 1

The water table is too high here for people to be buried under the ground because over time they’ll move around. So from way back to Spanish then French times before the city belonged to America, and probably learning the lesson the hard way, they are all above ground vaults. Some are elaborate, some just merely practical and many hold a couple of hundred years of family members.

But some vaults are built just for one person, like this one for an infant. It’s only ever been used once.

St Louis cemetery Baby tomb

One of the saddest vaults in the cemetery

I am with Dave from Tour New Orleans wandering through St Louis Cemetery Number 1. It’s just outside the French Quarter, bordering Treme, and is the oldest in New Orleans, dating back to 1789. There are 700 vaults containing several thousand bodies in here.

St Louis cemetery Treme

This pic is for fans of the TV show Treme, set here in New Orleans

Interesting New Orleans cemetery facts:

Legally the body must stay in the vault for one year and one day. Often they’re in there longer than that, but if you have another family member who has died, they need to use a rental for one year and a day and then they can be reunited.

St Louis cemetery oven wall

The wall of ovens that can be “rented” if your family vault is occupied

By the time the concrete seal is smashed open, the body has been “cremated” by the sun over the year and the grave-man uses a long pole to push the bones to the back of the vault so the next body can be loaded in. Some families have the bones and bits put into an urn or bag and then placed below in a caveau (or cave). This is where we get the saying “I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole”!

Famous dead folks at St Louis I Cemetery: 

Although Catholic, this cemetery is a pilgrimage site for Voodoo practitioners too as Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau is entombed here. Her plain square vault is tagged with lipstick XXX’s as she was also a beauty therapist and people leave odd things at this “shrine”. Do not lean against it because that lippy is fresh, as one lady in a cream dress on my tour discovered.

St Louis cemetery Voodoo queen

Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s vault tagged by pilgrims

City mayors and founders are also here, and so is this very odd structure built by actor Nicholas Cage in 2010 for him to be interred in.

St Louis cemetery Nicholas Cage

Nick Cage’s unusual looking vault. A little out of place in this historic setting

Our tour also took us to Congo Square where jazz music began. I totally recommend this for a couple of hours.


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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!