Monday, July 11, 2011

Cities of the Dead

Pic via Wikipedia
Cemeteries may creep some people out, but I find them quite serene and beautiful. The first time I visited New Orleans, I took a guided tour of the St. Louis Cemetery #1. This cemetery is the oldest (opened in 1789) and most famous cemetery in the Big Easy. Best recognized for their above ground tombs, the cemeteries of New Orleans do not bury their dead six feet under. The water table in NOLA is pretty high, so when you dig just a few feet down, the graves become soggy and water filled – meaning a casket can literally float away – even after a slight rainfall. Early settlers attempted to combat these rising caskets by putting in a few heavy stones, which worked until the next rainfall. Therefore, above ground tombs were built to hold the city’s dead.

There are a few significant New Orleanians laid to rest in the St. Louis Cemetery #1. Most notable is the renowned voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. Her tomb is the most recognizable in the cemetery. Legend has it that if you draw three "x"s (XXX) on its side, Laveau will grant you a wish. The tour we had taken even handed out little Gris-Gris bags at her tomb!

Pic via Wikipedia
The inner constitutional law nerd in me was super excited to see that Homer Plessy is also buried in this cemetery. You may remember him as the plaintiff of the landmark ‘separate but equal’ court case Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896.

Other noteworthy New Orleanians buried here are Etienne de Boré, the wealthy pioneer of the sugar industry and the first mayor of New Orleans; Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial, the first African-American Mayor of New Orleans; Bernard de Marigny, the French-Creole playboy who brought the game of craps to the United States; Barthelemy Lafon, the architect and surveyor who allegedly became one of Jean Lafitte's pirates; and Paul Morphy, one of the earliest world champions of chess.

A word to the wise – if you are going to check out the St. Louis Cemetery #1, do it with a tour group. It isn’t in the safest of areas and it’s certainly not a place you’d want to be alone.

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