Cemeteries are somewhat unique in New Orleans in that people here generally bury their dead in above ground tombs. Family tombs often resemble houses or churches complete with iron fences and crosses mounted on top. Rows of above ground tombs look like a city of small buildings and so they have come to be known as Cities of the Dead.
As the only major U.S. city below sea level, New Orleans high water table and below sea level elevation prohibits below ground burial. Early attempts at below ground burial often resulted in coffins ‘popping out of the ground’ after a rainfall. “Cities of the Dead” in New Orleans have become quite famous and generate a lot of interest from historians and the general public. Nationally known local writer Anne Rice frequently uses Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 for locations in her stories — the Mayfair witches’ family tomb is here for instance.
Tombs in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 are constructed with a shelf near the top where recently deceased bodies are placed. The shelf doesn’t extend all the way to the back so when it’s time to add another body to the family tomb the previous bones can be pushed to the rear where they fall through joining any remains already present.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is in the Garden District. Its entrance is on Washington Avenue between Prytania and Coliseum across the street from Commanders Palace restaurant. There’s also another entrance on the other side of Lafayette Cemetery on Sixth Street. Regulations limit the opening of tombs to once a year, not nearly frequently enough during times like the yellow fever epidemics, so temporary “storage ovens” line some of the exterior walls in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.
Yellow fever epidemics killed tens of thousands of people in New Orleans in the 1800’s. In 1853 over 7,000 people died in one of the largest epidemics in American history. Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel on Rampart Street at the edge of the French Quarter in New Orleans was built in 1826 to serve as a burial church for yellow fever victims. Close to St. Louis Cemetary No. 1 and No. 2 it was orginally called Chapel of St. Anthony of Padua but is also known as the Mortuary Chapel. Marie Laveau, the notorious Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, was (probably) buried in the Laveau-Glapion tomb in St. Louis No. 1.
Marie Laveau’s tomb is one of the most visited with many considering it to be a “wishing tomb” where believers draw an X, perform a ritual and leave an offering. Her ghost is said to have been sighted nearby. It is recommended that you not attempt to visit one of the Cities of the Dead alone as muggers can easily conceal themselves along the paths and among the tombs to prey on lone individuals. Go with a group or take advantage of one of the many Cemetery & Voodoo or Ghost Tours that are available in New Orleans and the French Quarter