New Orleans Cemetery Guide
A Practical Guide to Visiting New Orleans Cemeteries
Everyone should see a New Orleans cemetery. There are more than forty in the city, each with its charm and personality. You can sign up for our daily walking tours of St. Louis Cemetery #1, the oldest in the city and visit Lafayette Cemetery #1 on our daily Garden District Tour. You can also use our self-guided tour of Lafayette Cemetery #1, but if you really want to delve into the beauty and history of our “cities of the dead,” a guided tour can be a fun way to learn about the people that lived here before us, the people who shaped the city of New Orleans. Here is a guide to help you understand our cemeteries, and some helpful tips for exploring them.
New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 as a tiny outpost situated in a bend in the Mississippi River and surrounded by cypress swamps. Usually, the early settlers would bury people in the highest ground in the area, the levee. However, this was problematic in a city that still tended to flood every few years. Bodies or caskets would be revealed when the water came and washed away the soil around them. In 1722, an official cemetery, the St. Peter Cemetery, was built on the outskirts of the tiny village. The dead were buried underground, but problems associated with our high water table and flooding continued. In 1788, a new cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery (today’s St. Louis #1) was built, St. Peter Cemetery was deconsecrated, and the lots sold for building residences. The bodies of the dead buried in the old cemetery remained, and are occasionally unearthed during renovations on that block. Around 1800, New Orleans began the current custom of above ground interment, inspired by the cemeteries in European cities. This custom, so practical in New Orleans, soon became standard practice and continues today.
The tombs in the cemeteries of New Orleans are works of art, and as such there is no limit to the styles one will find. However, there are four most common types: family tombs, society tombs, wall vaults, and coping tombs.
These are the most common type of tomb. They usually feature 2-3 chambers stacked upon each other, but can hold 40-50 deceased family members. When all of the chambers are occupied and a new corpse needs to move in, the one that has been in the longest is taken out. The remains are bagged, labeled, and placed in a below-ground box called a caveau. The new occupant is put in the chamber, the chamber opening is bricked up, and the closure tablet is screwed in place. This process is repeated every time the tomb is needed.
These are large tombs that can hold the remains of hundreds of dead. They belong to religious orders, workers unions, immigrant groups, or charitable organizations. In life, members paid dues to the society, and in death were allowed to be buried in the society tomb. They range from simple rows of tombs to elaborate structures such as the Odd Fellows Society Tomb in Lafayette Cemetery (image to right).
Often, the walls of the cemeteries are made of burial chambers. These are sometimes called “oven vaults” because they resemble old-style ovens. Wall vaults are a less expensive alternative to building a family tomb, but only 6-8 occupants can fit inside. Wall vaults line the the inside of exterior cemetery walls.
These are used when, for religious or personal reasons, the deceased wished to be buried in earth but died in New Orleans. A wall is built which reaches three feet underground and 2-3 feet above ground level. The casket is placed within the wall, and then the area around it is filled in with soil.
Now that you know a little about New Orleans cemeteries, you will want to visit one. But which one? In nearly every neighborhood you’re likely to visit, there is a cemetery worth seeing. Here are a few of our favorites:
- A – St. Louis Cemetery #1 (edge of French Quarter): (map)
The oldest extant cemetery in New Orleans, it is currently undergoing more restoration than ever before. This is due to the fact that in March 2015, the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the general public. Now, you can only see the cemetery if you are on the list of families who own tombs, or if you are with a permitted tour guide (our St. Louis Cemetery Tour runs daily). Notable personalities resting here include Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans and Homer Plessy of the landmark civil rights case Plessy v. Ferguson. You will also find the future tomb of Nicolas Cage, the Hollywood actor. After Easy Rider was filmed here in 1969, the Archdiocese forbade any commercial filming in any Catholic cemeteries in the city. While you can’t visit the cemetery on your own, we do have a short self-guided tour to show you what is inside.
- B – Lafayette Cemetery #1 (Garden District): 1416-1498 Washington Ave, New Orleans (map)
A city-owned cemetery established in 1832 in the heart of the district famed for its enormous antebellum mansions and lovely fenced yards, this cemetery is one of the most visited in the city. It is open to the public. It is a favorite filming spot, having been seen in Interview With a Vampire, Double Jeopardy, NCIS: New Orleans, American Horror Story, Dracula 2000, The Originals, and numerous music videos. Learn more about the cemetery with our self-guided tour. Our guided tour of the Garden District visits the cemetery daily.
- C – St. Louis Cemetery #3 (City Park/Bayou St. John): (map)
The long, neat cemetery at the end of Esplanade Avenue is a favorite stop for bus tours of New Orleans. Built on the site of a former leper colony, this cemetery sits on a natural high ridge along Bayou St. John and is a great place to get photographs of angel statues. If you walk all the way to the end on the cemetery, you will find a three-story mausoleum and you will be rewarded with an impressive view of the neighborhood if you climb to the top floor balcony. If you plan on visiting this cemetery, consider taking our self-guided tour of Esplanade Avenue and Bayou St. John neighborhoods with you.
- D – Metairie Cemetery (Old Metairie, though actually it is in New Orleans): (map)
A stunning 65-acre cemetery built on a former horse-racing track. When it was dedicated in 1872, the trend in cemeteries in the Eastern United States was toward rural memorial parks with landscaped grounds, lakes, and pathways. This aesthetic, combined with New Orleans flair for ornamented, above-ground tombs, creates a cemetery that one can explore all day. Several Civil War generals, New Orleans mayors, Louisiana governors, artists, and writers rest in this cemetery, as well as Al Copeland, the founder of Popeyes Fried Chicken and famed musician Louis Prima, whose epitaph is inscribed with the lyrics of one of his most famous songs, “Just a Gigolo”. Many people visit the Morales tomb, which was originally built for famed Storyville madam Josie Arlington and features a young girl knocking at the door of the tomb.
- E – Canal Street Cemeteries (Mid-City):
These include Cypress Grove, Greenwood, Odd Fellows Rest, and Old Charity Hospital/Katrina Memorial Cemetery. Easily reached by the red Canal Street Streetcar (the one that reads “cemeteries” on the front), they are all open to the public except Odd Fellows Rest, which is currently undergoing restoration. Old Charity Hospital Cemetery was established in 1848 as a burial place for unidentified people. Therefore, there are no markers at all in this cemetery. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 83 victims of the storm and its aftermath remained unidentified and were interred here. Cypress Grove contains several interesting tombs, including the Soon on Tong tomb, erected in 1904 as a temporary resting place for Chinese people who died in New Orleans, before their remains were shipped to China. Greenwood, one of the city’s largest cemeteries at 150 acres, boasts at its entrance the impressive Elks tomb and Firemen’s Monument. You will also see many cast iron tombs in Greenwood.
There are a few things you may want to bear in mind before you set out on your adventure into the cemeteries of New Orleans:
The cemeteries are still active. All of the cemeteries mentioned in this guide are still active cemeteries. Families are still burying their dead regularly. If you see a funeral procession or workers preparing a tomb, respectfully stay away from that area and do not take photographs of the process.
Marking tombs is vandalism. There are tombs in some of the older cemeteries that have been marked, usually with three x’s. Some people believe that this is a voodoo tradition and that the person interred within will grant your wish if you make the x’s and say some magic words. Unless your wish is to pay a fine for destruction of property, this probably is not true. Never make a mark on a tomb. It is disrespectful and illegal.
The cemeteries in this guide are safe; some others are not. New Orleans is a city with some neighborhoods that are less safe than others. All of the cemeteries we are recommending are considered safe, but always use common sense and be aware of your surroundings.
Leave nothing but footprints. Please do not litter in the cemeteries. The maintenance workers work hard to keep these sacred places accessible and as pleasant as possible to everyone.
Take LOTS of pictures. Photography is allowed in all the cemeteries and everyone loves to see pictures of these special places. Take close-ups of statues’ faces, inscriptions, people’s names. Get lots of different angles. These will become treasured memories of your excursion into one of New Orleans’ most unique traditions.