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Cities of the Dead

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New Orleans Local Color Cities of the Dead

European influence is evident in the city’s famous above-ground cemeteries. Most of the deceased in New Orleans are interred above ground because of the city’s high water table and below-sea-level elevation. There are 42 cemeteries in the metropolitan New Orleans area, and all have family-built, richly adorned tombs that can inter as many as a dozen deceased. The “cities of the dead” continue to be an item of great interest to newcomers and visitors, and cemetery tours are conducted daily by a number of tour companies.

The largest cemetery — Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery — is worth a visit to view its astonishingly beautiful tombs set in lovely garden areas and topped with handsome sculptures.

In the mid-1800s, this was the site of the Metairie Racetrack and Jockey Club. Legend has it that an American millionaire, Charles Howard, was denied admission to the clubhouse because he was not a Creole. The miffed millionaire vowed to buy and bury the track and the club. In l872, the site became a cemetery, and in 1885, when Howard died, his eternal resting place was on the grounds of the former Jockey Club. His ornate mausoleum features a statue of a man with his finger to his lips, a request for respectful silence for those at rest.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is another gem. This cemetery was the fourth in New Orleans and was laid out in two squares, with a third square set aside for the burial of African-American Catholics, notably voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

VOODOO AND MARIE LAVEAU

Mention “voodoo” and you’re likely to draw cautious stares. Many equate voodoo with devil worship or human sacrifice, but nothing could be further from the truth. Voodoo is an amalgam of religion and spiritualism with roots in ancient Africa. Its followers believe in one god and the search for a better understanding of the spiritual aspects of life.

With its blended French, Spanish and Indian traditions, New Orleans was the perfect setting for a practice that had made its way through Martinique, Haiti and the French West Indies to the feet of the woman who became its queen, Marie Laveau.

Laveau was a voodoo practitioner with the gift of showmanship. She borrowed heavily from Catholic traditions including incense, holy water and prayer, then stirred in her own mysticism, sensuality and snakes. A hairdresser, Laveau knew when to talk and when to listen as she entered homes of the wealthy and powerful women of New Orleans. They told her family secrets, of their husbands’ dalliances and of deleting references to questionable ancestry in their own family histories. If knowledge is power, Laveau was handed all the power she needed. By 1830, she was New Orleans’ undisputed Queen of Voodoo.

New Orleanians honor Laveau every June 23 — the eve of St. John the Baptist’s Feast Day — the night believers say the spirit of the voodoo queen rises. Laveau’s grave in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on Basin Street is meticulously maintained by legions of followers who still place offerings there, including food or various voodoo symbols.

A good place to peer into the world of voodoo is the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Blue candles burn continually in honor of Laveau in halls surrounded by pictures of ancient and modern voodoo rituals and magical drawings used to summon the spirits.

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