Decomposing New Orleans Culture – Touring St Louis No.1 Cemetery

“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

 St Louis No.1 Cemetery Plaque in New Orleans

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.

Nicholas Cage Tomb - St Louis No.1 Cemetery

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

 St Louis No.1 Cemetery a part of 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!

Mausoleum St Louis No.1 Cemetery

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.

Lori Sweet & Sylvio Roy
Lori Sweet & Sylvio Roy

Lori and Sylvio are freelance travel writers based in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. They have both had a life-long passion for travel and for learning about other cultures, while travelling on and off the beaten path. Taking detours along the way has enriched their experiences immeasurably. Both enjoy writing and photography, so it was a natural fit to combine this with their love of travel.

Lori was in education for 30 years. She was able to combine that with 14 years of part-time work as a Tour Director for a travel company that provides motor coach trips across North America. Upon retirement from teaching, she moved into the tour company office as a tour planner. She has kept a travel journal for over 30 years!

Sylvio spent 25 years in the Canadian Airforce, travelling the world as a pilot. Now retired from the military, he spends his time as a commercial pilot. He also spent the last 5 years writing a regular column for Canadian Aviator magazine.

They have both taken online and live travel writing workshops and are members of International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance (ITWPA).

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