Tales of the Crypts

I didn’t sign up for a tour of the The Cities of the Dead, as the cemeteries are called because of their resemblance to cities with houses and fences and streets and all, but I didn’t need to. I stumbled upon tour after tour and caught bits and pieces of cemetery history. For instance, the above-ground vaults are rooted in French and Spanish burial practices. Due to the high water table after it rained and the chaos it caused with floating corpses (you can’t keep a corpse down), the people of New Orleans decided to imitate the French and Spanish burial practices of using vaults. At least, that’s what many believe. But a tour guide will tell you that’s wrong, that the French and Spanish brought their burial practices to New Orleans and that it has nothing to do with the water table. My thoughts? I’m sure the French and Spanish influence is great because they settled New Orleans, but I also suspect that there were below-ground burials that resulted in floating corpses when the water table rose, giving credence to those stories, also. Whatever the reason, we have the Cities of the Dead.

Occasionally, I would find an open vault, and as I passed one tour group (I never stayed to listen because I wanted my own experience of the cemeteries, but it’s hard to turn off your ears), I heard her say, “Families will inter the deceased for at least one year and a day, after which, if there’s another person to be buried, they will open the vault, burn the coffin, and push the decomposed remains to the back of the tomb or to the area below. This may sound strange to us, but this was common practice of the French and Spanish settlers.”

Cemetery No. 35

Cemetery No. 35

I came upon this vault and found it intriguing with resurrection ferns growing around it’s opening.

Cemetery No. 36

Cemetery No. 36

I stepped close to it and peered in. I felt like an intruder and wondered if I had disturbed the spirits of the dead by taking a photo.

Cemetery No. 37

Cemetery No. 37

I quickly moved away and wandered down another small path. A couple of lanes away I could hear a tour guide saying, “You will notice open vaults. We strongly suggest that you don’t go near them. You don’t know how recently they’ve been opened and the exhumed air could still be present. Illness may then result.”

Well. Now I find out! By the way, I’m still alive, and I’m not sick—yet. My skin is still in tact, and I’m not craving brains so I’m not a zombie, either. Good news.

On a bright, sunny day, I visited the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, established in 1789. It is located just beyond the French District near the Iberville Housing Project…not a safe area, and I was told not to wander through the cemetery alone. I went alone and had no problems, but I can see the possibility of being mugged. On the other hand, with all the tours going through, I doubt anyone was in danger.

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 has interesting people associated with it. I stood before this huge pyramid, obviously newly built but I assumed it was replacing an older vault. A tour group started to converge, so I took a photo and turned to leave.

Cemetery No. 44

Cemetery No. 44

“This is the tomb of Nicholas Cage,” I overheard. “The banks can’t take this away from him! Burial vaults are not subject to repossession to repay debt.”


One of the main attractions in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the alleged tomb of Marie Laveau, one of the most powerful Voodoo Queens to ever live.

Cemetery No. 39

Cemetery No. 39

According to overheard snippets of tour guide wisdom, voodoo legend says that to awaken Marie Laveau’s powerful voodoo magic, go to her tomb, knock three times (to wake her from her sleep of the dead), mark the tomb with XXX in chalk or brick (tour guide said you can just use your fingers and draw the X’s), knock three times again, make your wish, then leave an offering. I’ve heard other versions that include turning around three times or rubbing your foot against a cup. What is consistent is to knock three times, draw at least one, but mostly three X’s (however, not with your finger, that’s something that is new to help keep the tomb from vandalism and disrepair), make a wish, leave an offering.

Cemetery No. 41

Cemetery No. 41 Dried flowers as an offering. Notice all the XXX’s on the tomb.

Cemetery No. 40

Cemetery No. 40 More offerings.

Cemetery No. 42

Cemetery No. 42 Other drawings on the vault.

Cemetery No. 43

Cemetery No. 43 This man is not a tour guide. He’s a volunteer and I’m sure he has to remove offerings from the tomb frequently. But he’s also a wealth of information not associated with tours.

Off and on I passed an old man dressed in ragged clothes, mumbling to himself. I assumed him to be homeless and rather harmless since he would avoid people when they passed him. As I was leaving St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, I noticed this bizarre tomb painted in garish magentas and blues. It’s as if a crazy person was given a brush and paints and they slathered the colors over everything, including rocks and silk flowers. Fascinated, I took a couple of photos. A tour moved in. Being rather tired of them interrupting me, I continued to take photos of this craziness.

Cemetery No. 45

Cemetery No. 45 Painted rocks.

Cemetery No. 46

Cemetery No. 46 Painted silk flower.

“A demented, old man takes care of this tomb….” the tour guide began.

I left.

I didn’t need to take a tour. I garnered information everywhere I went just by overhearing the tour guides. I’m sure I missed out on other interesting information about the Cities of the Dead, but I wasn’t there to take a tour. I wanted my own experience. Now that I have had my own experience, maybe next time I’ll take a tour. Maybe.


About Dezra Despain

Life is full of stories waiting to be revealed.

Posted on May 4, 2012, in A New Orleans Experience and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Nice pyramid there!

    And did you knock three times?

  2. Whoa! Thanks for the tour! Our cemetaries are such ordered affairs with so many rules and regulations about what can and can’t be done, placed, arranged, installed, etc etc etc.

    • I know. The more contemporary cemeteries are like that….sterile. I like to find older cemeteries where that’s not an issue. Usually they are connected to older churches or are on the East coast or within a different cultural community. Thanks for your comment.

  3. When I finally get to go here, I want you for my tour guide!

  4. I am so glad you stopped by and commented so I could find my way here. Were i to visit New Orleans I do believe I would be consumed by the cemeteries. Perhaps one day someone would be telling the tale of the crazy Kiwi whose body was found amongst the tombs.

    • A Kiwi who fought her way into the heart of French and Spanish territories while warding off voodoo charms (or stopping to learn how they do them!). That would be a fine tale indeed. Thanks for stopping by!

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