3421 Esplanade Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70112
Hours: Monday thru Saturday: 8am – 4:30pm; Sunday: 8am – 4pm
Free street parking
New Orleans has many nicknames: Crescent City; the Big Easy; and America’s Most Interesting City. Perhaps so interesting that their cemeteries even have a nickname: Cities of the Dead.
As most people know, cemeteries in New Orleans are built above ground, using vaults, walls, and mausoleums, because of the city’s tendency to flood. Centuries ago, residents learned the hard way that in-ground burial wouldn’t work. Bodies or coffins would rise to the surface anytime an area flooded. In New Orleans, the water table is extremely high; often, when a hole is dug deep enough and large enough to hold a coffin, it will fill up with water rather quickly, causing the coffin to float.
When Europeans settled here in the 1700’s, the great majority of New Orleans’ residents were from France and Spain. These colonists brought with them a tradition of above-ground burial, as it was commonplace in France and Spain at that time. This type of burial not only eliminated the problem associated with in-ground burial in a flood-prone city, but it also brought cultural and historical significance.
While in New Orleans, I visited St. Louis Cemetery #3. This cemetery, established in 1854, is one of the few historic cemeteries that is free for the public to tour. Some of the cemeteries in New Orleans are on the National Register of Historic Places. For many, booking a tour is the only way onto the property, if you’re aren’t a family member of someone buried there. With complete respect for the deceased and an appreciation for the area, I took a short walk around St. Louis Cemetery #3 to get a close up look into these burial grounds.
As with most final resting places, some of these vaults and mausoleums (which look like small homes) are made of beautiful polished granite and marble. However, most of these are the newer structures. Plaster, brick, concrete, and other stones make up most of the building materials from the older tombs. Many of these mausoleums are the final resting places for complete families or members of a group, not just a single person.
Of course, there is also much ornate artwork here. Sculptures, cast iron fences, decorative accents, along with fine detail work in the stone, are seen on and around the mausoleums. For some burial sites, no expense has been spared; we even saw a newly built mausoleum that resembled a small castle.
I was surprised to learn that there are long chambers, separated by shelves, inside the mausoleums. When a family member dies, their casket is placed on the top shelf, and the tomb is sealed with brick and mortar. Because of the heat and humidity of New Orleans, the body is slowly cremated. Most cemeteries have their own rules, but usually by custom, a new family member may be buried here only after one year and one day has passed. Persons who have died before that year is over, remain in temporary vaults until that one year and one day has passed.
When the mausoleum is opened for a newly deceased family member, the remains of last person (who is on the top shelf) are placed inside a burial bag and set in the back or bottom of the space. (Definitely not a job for the squeamish!) What remains of the casket is then removed from the mausoleum, and the newly deceased then lies on the top shelf in his or her casket, as the rest of the family lies below.
At St. Louis Cemetery #3, part of a wall that surrounds the property is made up of vaults. Here, burial remains are stacked on top of each other. This is a more affordable option for many residents, versus the large family mausoleums.
Because of the age of the cemetery, many of the burial sites have not been taken care of. Many family members of the deceased have no interest in the upkeep or aren’t around anymore to take care of the site.
Although not strictly enforced, families must maintain the vaults and mausoleums, according to law. Usually All Saints’ Day (November 1), is the day this is done. There are also laws that allow the city to take over control of neglected tombs, although this is hardly enforced. Upkeep of the burial sites, along with the cemeteries themselves, is expensive, which leads many cemeteries to succumb to disrepair.
The most famous and historic of the cemeteries of New Orleans have been cleaned up and repaired by the nonprofit organization Save Our Cemeteries. This organization runs fee-based tours of some of the cemeteries and uses the money to preserve and protect the cemeteries while restoring them and educating the public. In addition to organizing tours, they also give lectures, and spearhead community activities (like a 5K run/walk) to get the public involved.
So, when you visit the Big Easy, be sure your trip includes a stop at a New Orleans cemetery. You’ll likely find it as fascinating as I did!