Postcard from the Tombs

Entrance to the St. Louis Cemetery #1.
One of the most famous cemeteries in the world, St. Louis #1 in New Orleans, was established by Spanish Royal Degree August 14, 1789. Located on Basin Street within walking distance from Bourbon Street and downtown, it is the final resting place for many notable historic figures of New Orleans.

Because the city is actually below sea level, underground burials result in coffins floating to the ground's surface. The first cemetery in New Orleans, located on St. Peter Street, was littered with coffins that had floated up. The site was revolting to the general population and after heavy rains, the cemetery workers started off their workday by getting drunk in order to withstand the stench of the decaying bodies. The above ground wall vault system, popular in France and Spain, was used in St. Louis #1 to prevent "floaters" and the bodies located in the first cemetery were moved and the old place abandoned. Over time, elaborate sculptures and fancy decorative artwork embellishing the tombs resulted in this and the other New Orleans cemeteries to be known as "Cities of the Dead." 
Marie Laveau's crypt.

Plaque on Marie Laveau's crypt.
One of the most famous residents of St. Louis Cemetery #1 is Marie Laveau, the powerful Voodoo queen of New Orleans who was born in 1794. She married Jacques Paris in 1819 and had 2 children by him, but neither survived into adulthood. Around 1825, Jacques died under mysterious circumstances. Supposedly, the doctor could find no reason for him to be dead except he was. Marie was already known as the queen of all voodoo practitioners, had a poisonous pet snake she named Vidom which she danced with, but was never bitten and presided over bloody occult rituals.
 
The matter of her dead husband was not pressed by the police. Soon thereafter, Marie took a lover, Louis Christophe Dominic Duminy de Glapion. Records are sketchy, but she had at least 7 and possibly as many as 15 children by him, but only 2 lived to maturity. She was much sought after by black slaves and white masters alike for protection against disease, evil spirits, curses, bad luck in love, business, gambling, or other personal matters. After she died on June 16, 1881, there were many reports of people seeing her walking around town several days afterwards. Today, many people visit her tomb and leave offerings of coins, cigarettes, alcohol,  candles or Gras beads and mark the tomb in hopes her spirit will grant them a wish or protection. Evidently, she does not stoop to granting a winning lottery ticket - at least she hasn't yet for me.
 
The crypt climbed by Peter Fonda
in the movie Easy Rider. Note
the broken hand on the statue.
Close up view of the broken
handed statue.
Fans of the 1969 movie Easy Rider will recognize St. Louis Cemetery #1 as the place where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper filmed the acid freak-out scene. They did not have permission to film there and in one scene, Peter climbs up onto one of the society tombs and while hanging on to a statue's hand, accidentally broke it off. For the scene, Dennis, the film's director, wanted Peter to speak to the statue as if he were talking to his mother who had committed suicide when Peter was only 10 years old. Peter didn't want to as he had never really gotten over it, but Dennis insisted. The resulting monologue, which was not pre-written, was shot in one take and you hear Peter call the statue "mother" and he states he both loves her and hates her. After the movie was released, due partly to the damage, but mostly because of the backlash against drug use, the Archdiocese (the Catholic Church owns the cemetery) began a policy of disallowing any filming in the cemetery except for pre-approved documentaries and educational films.

 
Old statue by a fallen down crypt in serious need
of repair.
A number of years past, the cemetery, which contains roughly 100,000 human remains, fell into disuse, the crypts began to suffer from age and the elements, and it was not a safe place  to go due to muggers, thugs, and drug users. In the last few years however, renewed interest has led police to clean out the bad people, the crypts are slowly being repaired and restored, and it has become a place frequented by tourists. I'm not so sure I would be comfortable wandering around it in the dark, but it was perfectly safe in daylight hours and extremely interesting. By all means, reserve several hours of a New Orleans trip to visit the St. Louis Cemetery #1. And be sure to tell Ms. Laveau I'm still waiting for my lottery numbers to come up!


Crypt of  a powerful voodoo practitioner.

An angel symbolizes a messenger from God. Clasped hands
signifies affection for the departed even in death.

A broken angel.

 
Another crypt of a voodoo practitioner still visited by people
who ask the spirit for protection or a favor.

The pyramid crypt Nicholas Cage had constructed for
himself when the time comes. The writing on the front says
"Omnia Ab Uno" - Latin for "Come from one."