One of the most interesting things you’ll see in New Orleans are the cemeteries. Some people call them Cities of the Dead. There are street signs helping people find the resting place of their loved ones, or a historical person … and the burials are all above-ground in vaults.
The reason is simple: much of New Orleans is below sea level, which means that the water table is very high. Burials underground tend to float during floods which, to say the least, can be somewhat gruesome.
The above-ground burials consist of two-level vaults, which can only be re-opened after being sealed for a year and a day. There are wall vaults that can be used if a family member passes away before the vault can be unsealed, at which time their remains can be moved. What happens is this: the temperature inside the vaults can be as high as 500 degrees F. during the summer months, which dessicates the corpse on the top part of the vault. When a new loved one is added to the vault, the previous remains are pushed toward the back and drop to the second, lower level of the vault. The ossuaries in the bottom may contain remains that are hundreds of years old right along with those from the modern day.
There were some amazing vaults to be seen — one of which was the pyramidal future resting place of actor Nicolas Cage, who decided he wanted a permanent home in new Orleans.
Due to vandalism, the majority of New Orleans cemeteries no longer permit visitors without a licensed guide. I had a wonderful experience touring the oldest cemetery, St. Louis #1, with Historic New Orleans Tours. Our guide was a knowledgeable historian, and a great storyteller. St. Louis #1 is the final resting place of chess savant Paul Morphy, Delphine LaLaurie (of whom you will learn more in this blog series), voodoo queen Marie Laveau, and Bernard Marigny, among many others. A good cemetery tour will immerse you in NOLA history.
(Photos of St. Louis Cemetery #1 were taken by the author.)