“New Orleans doesn’t hide its quirkiness, it celebrates it!”, or at least that’s what Monique Hamilton – our cemetery tour guide – likes to say about New Orleans culture. A lively woman with purple hair, black dress adorned with skulls and roses, and a “Hot Wheels” tattoo on the back of her leg, Monique has that special kind of New Orleans flair. The initial apprehension of meeting her next to a hearse at Our Lady of Guadeloupe – a Roman Catholic church on the edge of the French Quarter – quickly evaporated.
St Louis No.1 Cemetery
Although it may seem odd at first, a visit to a cemetery will allow for a better understanding of the region’s culture and traditions. New Orleans having been French, Spanish, French again, then American, has plenty of very unique and fascinating customs. The St Louis No.1 Cemetery was founded in 1789. Located at the corner of St. Louis and Basin St, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are between 50,000 and 100,000 people “buried” there (most tombs are above ground and very ornate). As a result of poor record keeping early in the history of the city the exact number is unknown.
During the 90-minute tour of St Louis No.1 Cemetery, Monique kept us entranced by folklore and facts about the history of the people buried there. One of the most interesting tombs belongs to Marie Leveau… or does it? There is intrigue and mystery about her actual resting place.
Leveau was a 19th century African American woman known as a “Voodoo Queen” even though she called herself a Catholic. Another tomb belongs to the actor Nicolas Cage… No he is NOT dead, although his tomb is ready and waiting. Dried lipstick marks reveal where female visitors managed to sneak a quick kiss on the marble plaque before the guide could stop them.
New Orleans Culture
An interesting aspect of New Orleans culture and traditions is that the bodies of the deceased rest untouched for one year and one day following their passing. It is rumored that devious individuals would hide prize estate pieces, like a ring, with the body until time came for cleaning of the tomb. They would then recover the piece and keep it for themselves, no one the wiser!
Have you heard the expression “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole”? After one year and one day in the oven shaped tombs, a ten-foot pole is used to push the (hopefully) decomposed remains to the back of the tomb. There they would fall into a reservoir called a “caveau”. As Monique told us, “In New Orleans, you don’t just rest in peace, you rest in pieces”!
The Save Our Cemeteries organization provides guides for tours of St Louis No.1 Cemetery. All tours go rain or shine. Tickets can be booked online or by calling their office (504) 525-3377. Their office hours are Monday-Friday, 9 am to 5 pm CT. At the time of this writing the cost is $20.00 per person, 12 and older.