Despite the fact that New Orleans is one of America's liveliest cities (if you've ever been to Mardi Gras or drunkenly stumbled down Bourbon Street, you know what I'm talking about), it seems like it's been stalked by death and tragedy. From the War of 1812 and the Civil War to the seemingly constant yellow fever outbreaks and Hurricane Katrina, the city also has had its share of adversity. When most people think of the darker side of New Orleans, minds often jump to voodoo, but the city also has some unique funereal customs that speak to the city's distinctive culture. Jazz funerals, for example, are something you won't see anywhere else. But, most fascinating of all are the city's many graveyards and cemeteries. Because of New Orleans' location below sea level, it's not really possible to bury bodies deep enough underground. A tradition of above-ground tombs and crypts, often storing dozens of bodies, has developed, and it makes for some of the country's most hauntingly beautiful, if not extremely creepy, graveyards. Here are a few of our favorites.
Start your tour at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Located in the present-day Garden District, it's notable for the fact that immigrants from all over, and individuals from several states, are all buried here. It's named for the former city of Lafayette, which was annexed to New Orleans. The cemetery is only one city block square but contains 7,000 bodies within 1,100 family tombs and other gravesites. It was given a park-like appearance, with some nice landscaping, and intersecting avenues were designed to accommodate funeral processions.
Famous figures buried here include Judge Ferguson of Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate-but-equal” fame, Confederate Brigadier General Harry T. Hays and the Brunie family, who were famed jazz musicians.
While you're passing by, you might as well take a quick detour to the Museum of Death. It's more of a morbid collection of macabre ephemera, including gruesome crime scene and morgue photos, skulls, coffins, body bags, letters from serial killers, vintage mortician equipment, and more. It's definitely not for the faint of heart, and I don't say that lightly.
Hit up St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 to see the graves of saints and soldiers. Consecrated in 1823, it was originally meant to be placed far from the city center in an attempt to curb contagion. It received a bit of flooding after Hurricane Katrina, and you can still see evidence of this from the brownish waterline marks on the bottoms of some of the tombs.
Famous figures buried here include legendary jazz guitarist Danny Baker, 60s R&B singer Ernie K-Doe, and the Venerable Mother and potential candidate for sainthood Henriette DeLille, along with various New Orleans Mayors, politicians, and Confederate soldiers.
St. Louis No. 1 is the city's oldest and most famous burial ground. Opened in 1789, it has been in continuous use since its founding. You can only get in to see this graveyard with a guided tour, as concerns about vandalism caused the Catholic Diocese to close it to the public (if you have a family member buried here, you can apply for a pass as well). It's worth ponying up for access, though. Not only will you get to see the famous grave of notorious voodoo queen Marie Laveau, there's an assortment of other interesting things to see here as well, including the future final resting place of Nic Cage. He bought a crazy pyramid-shaped tomb in the cemetery for his burial... if he ever dies, that is.
Famous figures buried here include Homer Plessy, the plaintiff from the Plessy v. Ferguson case; Ernest Morial, the first African American mayor of New Orleans; Barthelemy Lafon, an architect who became one of Jean Lafitte's pirates and Paul Morphy, one of the world's first chess champions. Some suspect that Madame Delphine LaLurie, a famous murderess who was caught torturing and killing her slaves, is buried here as well. All of this in one square block!
The Saint Roch Chapel and Cemetery has its origins in one of the city's many yellow fever epidemics. In 1867, Reverend Peter Thevis began offering prayers to Saint Roch, who was a 1300s-era patron saint of good health. Saint Roch, as the story goes, was miraculously healed after treating victims of the black death in his small Italian town. When Thevis's community escaped the outbreak of yellow fever without a single death, he had the Gothic church erected in the saint's memory.
Today, the chapel is a very strange site to visit. Believers flock here to pray, and many leave behind prosthetics like polio braces, glass eyes, dental plates, and more, in addition to other offerings, after being healed. While the chapel itself is closed during repairs for termite damage, you can peek inside the windows, and the cemetery here is beautiful as well.
The final St. Louis Cemetery is No. 3. It's newer, opened in 1853, and the crypts tend to be more elaborate here. Think, 19th-century marble tombs, as opposed to the stone and plaster graves at other cemeteries. Despite heavy flooding during Katrina, it's in very good condition.
Famous figures buried here include ragtime composer Paul Sarebresole, photographer E. J. Bellocq, and painter Ralston Crawford.
Greenwood Cemetery & Mausoleum was also opened to provide relief for cemeteries overcrowded with yellow fever victims. It's also home to a mass grave of 600 Confederate soldiers. The centerpiece is an elegant, Gothic Fireman's Memorial dedicated to the volunteer firemen who died in the line of duty. Another tomb that's hard to miss is that of Lodge No.30 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. The fraternal order's crypt is marked with, naturally, an elk statue. Greenwood also recently added a massive mausoleum in the 1980s to house more burials.
Famous figures buried here include several New Orleans mayors, several Confederate Generals (Young Marshall Moody, Thomas M. Scott, and James Argyle Smith), New Orleans Rhythm Kings jazz legend Leon Roppolo, and novelist John Kennedy Toole.
The Odd Fellows are one of the world's oldest fraternal societies. The Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows purchased the land for this cemetery in 1847, and it was dedicated in 1849 with a procession and ceremony, wherein the Odd Fellows relocated some of their members from other graveyards to burial plots here. The cast-iron gates were once decorated with Odd Fellows symbols like the widow and her children, the beehive, the all-seeing eyes of Diety, the world, the cornucopia, the Order’s initials, the five-pointed stars, and the Bible, but many of these have been stolen.
It's home to many crypts and mausoleums, including a strange, unmarked grave shaped like large rusted safe. The combination has been lost to time, and there's little chance of getting in. This cemetery is temporarily closed for repairs, but the hope is to reopen it once it's been fixed up.
Cypress Grove was originally founded to be a resting place for volunteer firemen. In fact, Greenwood was originally overflow for this graveyard. You'll see the tombs from various fire companies here.
Famous figures buried here include several New Orleans mayors and prominent local businessmen.
End your tour at the grandest cemetery. Metairie Cemetery has the largest collection of marble tombs and funeral statuary in the city, so be prepared for sensory overload. Sights to see include the breathtaking weeping angel statue at the Hyams family mausoleum and the 60-foot-tall marble monument atop the Moriarty tomb. Interestingly enough, the cemetery is built on top of a former horse racing track. A wealthy local man named Charles Howard who made his fortune winning the state lottery was denied membership to the track's club, and he vowed that the track would become a cemetery. Years later, after Reconstruction, Howard's curse came true... and he's buried in the cemetery!
Famous figured buried here include Confederate Generals John Bell Hood and P. G. T. Beauregard; actresses Marguerite Clark and Dorothy Dell; Ruth U. Fertel, founder of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse; jazz trumpeter Al Hirt; pro baseball player Mel Ott; poet Stan Rice and author Grace King, among others.