[St. Louis 1] is the mother cemetery…the Vieux Carré of the dead; as confused and closely packed a quarter as the living metropolis — Grace King, 1895

The history of buildings, people, and cultural traditions at the cemetery provides many interesting facts. Early travelers referred to this as a 'City of the Dead' because the density of tombs reminded them of the urban city just outside the gates.

Historical Overview

Without fortification and near the Baron Carondelet canal … is the burial ground … Over its gate is a Cross - the usual emblem of everything sacred among Catholics—a broken palisade gave me admittance, not a single grave stone marked the remains of either the noble or ignoble dead … — John Pintard, 1801

In 1788, New Orleans lost many citizens to an epidemic and a great fire. St. Peter Street cemetery, established at the edge of the early city, but just within the ramparts was filled. Given common belief that interring the dead among the living contributed to outbreaks of disease, the Cabildo, following Spanish royal decree, ordered a new cemetery to be established outside the city limits. St. Louis Cemetery, now called St. Louis Cemetery Number 1, was established in 1789 to the north of the city, outside the ramparts in the area now bounded by Basin, Conti, Tremé and St. Louis Streets.

Watercolor by JHB LatrobeJohn H. B. Latrobe painted a colorful view of the early cemetery that gives us the first clear image of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in 1834. The pyramidal Varney tomb is prominent, and there are step and platform tombs illustrated in earth colored stuccos. Many of the site's characteristic features are documented: multiple burial tombs, wall vaults and shell paths are visible, as well as ships in Carondalet's canal beyond.

 

Burial Custom

The tombs in the cemeteries on the outskirts of the town are raised from the ground, in order that they may be above the swamps, and the coffins are placed in bins like those of a cellar. — Sir Charles Lyell, 1849

Most of the tombs at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 were designed to house many generations of a family or society group in the same tomb through multiple, sequential interment. Traditionally the dead were placed in wooden coffins in one of the vaults. The vault opening was loosely closed with mortared brick, and a stone closure tablet sealed the tomb. If the space was needed for another burial, the vault could be re-opened after at least 1 year and 1 day, the coffin removed and burned, and the decomposed remains pushed to the back of the tomb or placed beneath the vaults in the caveau below. This custom of multiple burial seemed strange to most Americans, particularly from the Northeast, but was familiar to French and Spanish settlers.

Closure tablets

The closure tablet often names many names and dates from within the same family. If a closure tablet became full, it was usually mounted permanently to the side of the tomb and a new closure tablet of white marble was installed. One can read the history of many generations within the family, just by reading the tablets on the tombs.

Necrogeography: The Geography of Death

In nothing does habit and general and long-continued practice guide a community more despotically than in the disposal of the bodies of the dead. — Benjamin H. B. Latrobe. Impressions Respecting New Orleans (1819)

The cemetery is the largest material correlate related to the rituals of death, including commemoration. In layout and design, monuments, tombs and gravemarkers, motifs and inscriptions, plantings and votives, the cemetery encompasses our personal and collective responses in confronting death, and in so doing, it reveals much about our attitudes toward life.

According to contemporary scholarship, death and dying have become significant topics as they relate to the legal, medical, and moral issues of living and dying in the twenty-first century. Extended life expectancy, assisted suicide, euthanasia, AIDS, and abortion have forced Americans to confront mortality despite an elaborate avoidance of death. Most Americans today have distanced themselves from death; many have never seen a corpse or attended the death of a family member or friend, a situation unlikely a century earlier given the frequency of disease and epidemics, the close proximity of the family, and former prevailing attitudes of private and personal mourning. Instead of the home, most death now occurs in the hospital and hospice, and subsequent rituals of wake and burial are arranged by third parties with minimal or passive input from the family and religious institutions.

This situation is by no means unique to North America and it has developed gradually during the social and economic changes that befell most industrialized nations beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Recent scholarship has begun to critically examine these changes in beliefs and attitudes toward death, and the associated customs of the mourning, disposal, and commemoration in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and North America. Both general and specific studies by historians, archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and folklorists have long-focused on the design, typology, and stylistic development of gravestones, tombs, and entire burial grounds and cemeteries as material culture and cultural landscapes. What has generally been ignored, however, is the significant role secondary activities such as tourism and preservation have played in the ideological and physical transformation of these places over time beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.

To behold the American cemetery today is to challenge contemporary society's amnesia and its obliviousness to traditional monumentality and history. To celebrate the cemetery is to embrace a postmodern predilection for the convergence of history and memory and to recognize individual subjective emotion as well as the universal human condition. In its myriad of individual tombs and markers, the cemetery evokes the human social community. Behind their walls, New Orleans' early cemeteries still provide a place for contemplative reflection, removed from the intrusions of the city. In their narrow interconnected alleys, they confound like a maze taking visitors on an instructive journey past former lives. Through the successive chronological epitaphs of the deceased, they link past to present, each tomb standing as both text and artifact, offering a group portrait of New Orleans' complex society through time. In its collective, contained, and detached landscape the cemetery presents a parallel urban world that truly exists on the other side of the looking glass.

Tall Tales

They put the bodies in those ovens to bake! You know, it gets well over 400 degrees - just like in your oven at home. See that one over there - there's even a chimney on top for the baking! — One of tall tales heard in the cemetery

In the 1800s, travelers sought out the cemetery to experience, just for a moment, the thrill of contemplating a foreign custom and place of burial. Throughout the historical accounts are both fact and fiction as writers sought to dramatize their own experiences and impressions. Today, the cemetery is still a major tourist draw, and cemetery tours are a key element for the total New Orleans experience. Many visitors are drawn by the architectural and historical content of the cemetery, while others seek to experience a small moment of the modern intrigue created by fictional accounts in popular books and movies; the excitement of voodoo, vampires and high adventure.

The many daily tours at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 serve to define the site to thousands of people each month. The tourism industry packages economical, scripted slices of local color with a small dash of physical adventure for the mass marketing of most tours. Heritage marketing thrives on the gaps between history and memory introducing elements of colorful folklore and fictional accounts. Most of the tour guides at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, such as those volunteering for Save Our Cemeteries or the Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries and others, are well-versed in good historical infomation on the cemetery, and would not make the above silly comment. With the wealth of interesting and highly entertaining factual information available, it should not be necessary to confuse visitors with fictional 'tall tales' disguised as facts.