Friday, February 27, 2015

Touring New Orleans – St. Louis Cemetery #1

As you may know, cemeteries are definitely different in New Orleans and throughout the bayou country.  Cemetery tours are big business for many. These guided tours satisfy curious tourists, history buffs, believers in the supernatural as well as those who lend credence to the practice of voodoo or black magic.

Laurie would have preferred a nighttime ghost tour…but to be honest, I wasn’t sorry that we visited this cemetery in the daytime.  Maybe she’ll get her ghost tour on our next visit to New Orleans…

Saint Louis Cemetery is the name of three Roman Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana.  All of these graves are above-ground vaults with most being constructed in the 18th century and 19th century.  As we learned, the custom of above-ground burial in New Orleans and south Louisiana is a mixture of folklore and fact.  These vaults were built above ground due to French and Spanish tradition, not because of a high water table.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest and most famous of all the New Orleans’s burial grounds.  It was opened in 1789, replacing the city's older St. Peter Cemetery, (no longer in existence), as the primary burial ground when the city was redesigned after a fire in 1788.

Use your imagination as you view the preceding photos.  Pretend that it’s a dark and rainy night, maybe with a little lightning, and you’re lost…just wandering down these dark and spooky aisles.  I’m not easily ‘spooked’, but this nighttime setting would bring out any latent fears that I might be suppressing!

The lady with the badge hung around her neck was our guide for the tour.  She was very knowledgeable and she knew her history as well as tomb architecture… We opted for the Historic New Orleans Tour group/Save Our Cemeteries vs. the Haunted History or Voodoo Cemetery Tour.

This is the tomb for Pierre Derbigny and his family.  Pierre Augustin Charles Bourguignon Derbigny was born in France in 1769 but he fled France in 1791 during the French Revolution.  Derbigny was one of the representatives of the new Americans in Washington seeking self-government for the Orleans Territory.  He was the 6th Governor of Louisiana…

Derbigny supported the reopening of the slave trade and, as the territory was integrated into the United States, he opposed British common law in Louisiana and defended the retention of civil law practices established during the French and Spanish colonial periods.  As a consequence, Louisiana is unique among the 50 U.S. states in having a legal system for deciding private disputes that is primarily based on French and Spanish codes and ultimately Roman law, as opposed to English common law. 

FYI…These tombs usually contain more than one deceased member from the family, in fact there are normally several corpses are interred in most of these structures.  The remains are basically stacked on top of each other… 

With its multitude of large and small structures, spires, towers, multi-story tombs and monuments, St. Louis Cemetery #1 is indeed a city of the dead… The tall brick structure on the right is a ‘tomb apartment’.  If you couldn’t afford a family tomb and you couldn’t convince a friend to ‘share’ their tomb with you, these stacked apartment burials provided an optional solution. 

This is an example of a shared tomb, with the owner of the tomb sharing it with a friend.  As is the practice, visitors or family members have left flowers, beads and other mementos…such as this bottle of champagne…as gifts to the deceased.  

Our guide informed us that many families actually gather by their family tomb each year to commemorate/celebrate the dead and to have a picnic.  She had come across one such celebration only a week earlier…

This is the “Musicians’ Tomb”.  It’s big and quite new… Back in 2004, local community activists answered the call to properly honor those who gave the city its anthems.  This 18-vault tomb bears a plaque designating it as the Société "L'Union Sacrée"/Barbarin Family/Musicians' Tomb.  A larger plaque lists New Orleans musicians as they are entombed at the site. Inclusion in the tomb will not be limited to those who can't afford another place for burial but most New Orleans musicians are neither wealthy nor international celebrities.

This is the tomb of Jean Étienne de Boré. (1741 – 1820) He was a French planter who was known for producing the first granulated sugar in Spanish Louisiana, essentially making sugar cane profitable as a commodity crop. He was prominent at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and in 1803 the American governor of the territory appointed him the first Mayor of New Orleans under United States administration.

This is the de Marigny family tomb.  Jean-Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, (1785–1868), was a French-Creole American nobleman, playboy, planter, politician, land developer and President of the Louisiana Senate. 

Bernard was also a big time gambler.  He actually introduced a dice game (craps), into New Orleans.  He had so many gambling debts that upon reaching legal adulthood, he divided his family plantation into small lots on what was then the outskirts of early New Orleans.  His development was very popular and it is now called the Faubourg Marigny…a neighborhood in the city.  Jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton was from Faubourg Marigny.   

Among other family members buried in this tomb is Homer Plessy. (1862 – 1925) He was the American Louisiana Creole of Color plaintiff in the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Arrested, tried and convicted in New Orleans of a violation of one of Louisiana's racial segregation laws, he appealed through Louisiana state courts to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. 

The resulting "separate-but-equal" decision against him in 1896 had wide consequences for civil rights in the United States.  The decision legalized state-mandated segregation anywhere in the United States so long as the facilities provided for both blacks and whites were "equal".  This ruling stood until the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. 

There are also a number of ethnic or society tombs in the cemetery.  This is the Italian Society's version…

Society tombs for professional or benevolent societies were common in the early history of New Orleans and served to administer to the burial needs of the individuals who belonged to them.  There are many historically important ethnic groups as well as such groups as volunteer firemen that are represented by these tomb styles.  A society tomb is a multi- layered tomb wall that contains several burial vaults.  They are like mausoleums…except that most people in a society tomb are connected in some way.

Scattered tombs throughout the cemetery have slowly collapsed as families either fail to maintain them or family lines have faded into obscurity.
Initial burials appear to have taken place in a haphazard manner, leading to the current maze of tombs and aisles.  Current theories about tomb and site evolution suggest that initial burials took place below-ground or in low, quasi-above ground tombs that only held one burial.  As the needs of the site grew, existing burial plots were added on to create additional burial vaults while retaining the original tomb footprints.  So, the one tier semi-below ground burial space became the fully realized above-ground tomb now found throughout the cemeteries of New Orleans and bayou country.

This pyramid is one of the most unusual tombs in the St. Louis #1 cemetery.  As it turns out, this is the only property remaining in New Orleans that is still owned by actor Nicolas Cage.  While he lost his home and other properties in bankruptcy, apparently pre-purchased tombs are exempt from the law.
If you’re wondering about all of those stains on the tomb, just click on the photo to enlarge it.  You will discover that those are lipstick imprints… Yikes!

This is the Glapion family tomb.  Allegedly, best evidence indicates the renowned Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, (1794 – 1881), is interred in the Glapion family crypt.  There is still some debate regarding the whereabouts of Marie and her daughter’s remains…but she had a lover, Christophe Dominick Duminy de Glapion, and they had a plethora of offspring.  

Two known descendants of Marie Laveau (II) supposedly still practice Voodoo.
To learn more about Marie Laveau (I), the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, go to

The Laveau-Glapion tomb is a focal point for commercial ‘voodoo’ tours. Some visitors leave small gifts at the site-coins, Mardi Gras beads, candles, etc.-in the tradition of voodoo offerings. Many follow a custom of making a wish at the tomb.  In 2013, this tomb was painted pink by a vandal and it cost over $10,000 to remove the paint and refurbish the tomb.

This is another tomb that is somehow alleged to be connected to the voodoo practices of Marie Laveau and her daughter.  The XXX markings are supposed to bring good luck and there are other rituals that go along with that.  Several tourist operations over the years have sensationalized the voodoo aspect of the cemetery, some going so far as to encourage people to mark on the tombs or even to knock openings in the bricks so they can extract bones to show the tourists…

If you’d like to learn more about Voodoo in New Orleans you can go to

From what we were told, many of the tombs used to be painted and a few families still maintain the practice.  This particular crypt is littered with offerings and gifts.

In January of this year, the Roman Catholic archdiocese announced that, as of March 1st, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 will no longer be free to the general public.  This is to protect the cemetery from further desecration.  Tour companies that operate in the cemetery will be required to register with the archdiocese at a cost of $450 a month, $1,200 quarterly or $4,500 a year. People with family members buried in the cemetery also can register for free passes.  To learn more about this new policy, you can go to

We did enjoy our tour.  The “Save Our Cemeteries” organization supports the new controls in St. Louis Cemetery #1 despite the additional costs.  Our tour guide was very good although another ‘guide’ tagged along, interrupted and was a general nuisance.  To learn more about this group and their tours, go to

Just click on any of the photos to enlarge them…

Thanks for stopping by and accompanying us on our tour!

Take Care, Big Daddy Dave


  1. Very interesting but I would have never dreamed that guided tours of a cemetery were offered.

  2. My husband and I love New Orleans and visit fairly often. We have, on several occasions, walked in the St. Louis cemetery on our own, but next time, I think it would be great to go on the guided tour. Thanks for the information and pictures.

  3. Very interesting post, David. IF you love history, New Orleans is the place to go... That city (even after Katrina) has always done a good job of sharing the culture and history with anyone interested. Sorry about the cemetery.. BUT--crime in New Orleans has always been one of their worst problems. We lived off of St. Charles Ave. ---and parked on the street (like so many others). Even though we never left anything valuable n our cars, they were broken into several times while living there. Not fun!!!!

    Thanks... Did you make it to any of the plantations nearby? They are fantastic also.

  4. I'm with Larry. Who would have thought a guided tour through a cemetery was available. Only in New Orleans, right? Some of the tombs are quite attractive, others sort of creepy. No way I'm going there at night. Funny, we lived near northern Louisiana and I was always taught that people in Louisiana were buried above ground because of the water table. I'm hoping along with Betsy that you visited some plantations while you were there.

  5. I read all your back posts on New Orleans. You did see quite a lot during your visit. We went there about 4 times in the last 5 years but we did not drive and stayed mostly in the French Quarter, so it was nice to see the other places you showed. We had seen the Garden District when we went to NOLA for the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 2003. I sure wished that France had never sold it! Then there would be more people speaking French like they do in Canada! Although I also went to Baton Rouge and Lafayette twice when I toured many plantations, and spoke French with several people there (France sends French teachers to Louisiana through the CODOFIL Program - when driving around Baton Rouge I saw a group of tourists and immediately could tell they were seniors from France as French people love to travel to Louisiana.)

    Last time in New Orleans we did take the St. Louis Cemetery tour, but I have not had a post on it yet. It is an interesting place and I wish more financial help was given to it. I think now I’ll have to go and have lunch after looking at all the great dishes you showed – it gave me an appetite!

  6. Dear Dave, This was interesting. I would not want to go at night either; though Laurie is brave to want to do that!
    I can't believe that the church is charging to visit the cemetery.
    Well, I enjoyed this tour and all of the posts of New Orleans. Thank you Dave.
    Blessings, Catherine

  7. How incredible...I don't know if I would have been up for the night tour's incredible though they even offer a cemetery tour - that says a lot about all the history of the south. I like that they do that preserves the culture.
    I have mixed feelings about closing it off to the public. I don't know if that is right. Thanks for giving us all a glimpse, Dave!

    All my best to Laurie :)