Visit New Orleans' most historical Cemetery
St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the oldest Cemetery in New Orleans. It opened in 1789 once the Saint Peter cemetery (which is no longer in existence) could not sustain the growing population of the city. It is also the most famous, holding the graves of several notable figures including Bernard de Marigny, Marie Laveau and Paul Morphy. Bernard de Marigny was a rowdy, ambitious nobleman who developed Faubourg Marigny east of the French Quarter. He was known for causing trouble and gambling and was sent by his father to England. However, instead of straightening out as his father wished, he brought back the dice game Craps, which was a hit among locals.
Marie Laveau, the infamous Voodoo Queen was known all over the city as the go-to woman to solve varying issues from cheating lovers to thieves. There are countless legends and even songs about her intimidating powers. Voodoo was brought over by refugees fleeing Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti) during their revolution in the early 1800s, which had a major impact on the city ever since.
Due to flooding, sand and shells were added to support the swampy terrain of the cemetery. It is located on Basin Street one block outside the French Quarter. Hours are Monday thru Saturday 9 am to 3 pm and Sunday 9 am to 12 pm.
Starting March 1st, 2015, the Archdiocese of New Orleans will be enacting new rules that will prohibit anyone from entering St. Louis Cemetery #1 without a tour guide. This is an effort to cut down on the vandalism which has been plaguing St. Louis Cemetery #1 for many years. Read more about the Archdiocese decision here.
The History of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Located on the furthest parameter of the French Quarter, St. Louis Cemetery #1 remains to this day the most visited burial site in all of the New Orleans metro-area. It lays claim to being the oldest cemetery in the city, despite the fact that it was actually the second established grave site in New Orleans.
The oldest cemetery still exists: below the paved roads of the French Quarter, below the colorful shotgun-style houses and Creole townhouses, many coffins of the St. Peter Street Cemetery are still there, resting in the peace of the afterlife. (Thanks to occurrences such as one incident in 2011 when fifteen waterlogged coffins were excavated from someone's backyard, we know understand that early New Orleanians developed the burgeoning city directly on top of the city's first burial ground.)
From the period of 1725 to the 1780s, St. Peter Street Cemetery held the city's dead in below-ground graves. Soon enough, capacity grew limited, partly due to a growing population and also because New Orleans was disease-ridden and there was not enough room to hold the mounting number of dead. The Cabildo, the Spanish governing consul, closed the cemetery and set about surveying a new parcel of land. Spanish Governor Esteban Miro had demands, however, that would ultimately shape the culture and fabric of death in the Crescent City.
The Spanish consul mandated that all new cemeteries were to be located at a distance from the French Quarter. That the dead might infect the living was a tremulous fear that worried most citizens during this period, and the Cabildo ruled that all forthcoming burial sites were to be placed in the swamp. Naturally, thanks to the city's high water table, flooding was a subsequent problem to Miro's ordinance. But solid land was precious to early New Orleanians, where the French Quarter might as well have been an island surrounded by swamps. Above-ground tombs were the solution: with multiple of generations fitting into one tomb, land was saved for city development. Many argue that it was due to Governor Miro's Spanish heritage, in addition the ruling Spanish Cabildo, that influenced the architecture and the use of tombs and crypts in New Orleans as it was Spanish custom.
St. Louis Cemetery #1 was officially consecrated in 1789. In the beginning, the plots were haphazardly laid out; organization never truly found its way to St. Louis #1, lending the site a disorientating maze-like feel. The dead and their respective tombs were then organized by religion: Catholic, non-Catholic, Protestant and "Negroes," the last of which referring to slaves and not the city's free people of color population. For the next forty or so years, St. Louis Cemetery #1 remained the city's premier burial site before others were established even further from the French Quarter's borders.
However, much like the city's disregard of St. Peter Street Cemetery, St. Louis #1 faced similar threats from burgeoning city development. The early nineteenth century saw the growth of the Treme neighborhood along the back of the cemetery's boundaries, and the French Quarter's need for more space by the end of the eighteenth century meant that the dead suffered. St. Louis #1 was effectively cut in half. Then, the establishment of Storyville 1897, which was the city's official red light district, put St. Louis #1 in almost the epicenter of the sixteen-block prostitution ring. Slowly, the wealthy began to go elsewhere to purchase their family tombs and St. Louis Cemetery #1, the oldest extant burial plot in the city, felt the effects of the neglect.
In a fortunate turn of events, a new desire to revive the area aided in the revitalization of the almost 300-year-old burial site during the twentieth century. Under the intervention of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and under the conservation efforts of nonprofit organizations like Save Our Cemeteries, St. Louis Cemetery #1 once again became a vibrant cemetery. Its beauty and its historic prestige make this cemetery one of the leading tourist sites in the entire city, attracting thousands of visitors each year.
Famous People Buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Over the centuries, thousands of New Orleanians have been interred in St. Louis Cemetery #1. From the average person like you and me to the famous or weirdly eccentric, St. Louis #1 has welcomed all within its fold. Here are just a few famous New Orleans characters that you might stumble upon during your cemetery tour!
Of all the people interred within St. Louis Cemetery #1, the tomb of Marie Laveau is probably the most highly anticipated as well as the most visited. Born in 1801, Marie Laveau was a free woman of color in New Orleans. She would officially marry only once, though Marie would later enter into a common-law marriage with the white Creole, Christophe-Dominick Duminy de Glapion, with whom she would have a reported fifteen children.
Legend and rumors have surrounded Marie Laveau for centuries. Referred to as the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau practiced the occult and fortune telling; she was also a philanthropist as she often attended to the poor and needy with various herbal medicines. During the nineteenth century, her prowess with the otherworldly were both feared and revered by all walks of society. By the time of her death and interment in 1881, the citizens of New Orleans were convinced of her immortality after they spotted her the very next day walking the streets of the French Quarter appearing younger and with much more youthful vigor. (In truth, her daughter Marie II pretended to be her mother for most of her life).
Mystery has shrouded Marie Laveau since almost the moment of her birth. Was she actually a hairdresser, as some sources suggest? Did she instead act as a liquor importer on Dauphine Street, as one newspaper account claims? We may never have the chance to unravel all of the Voodoo Queen's secrets, but visiting her tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1 offers the chance for us mere mortals to stand near New Orleans' most well-known historical figure.
Bernard de Marigny
Perhaps the city's most polarizing figure, Bernard de Marigny was born in 1785 into New Orleans' wealthiest family. He was a man both loved and hated, depending upon whom one asked. At the tender age of fifteen, Bernard inherited a fortune from his recently deceased father, Phillipe de Marigny. Legend has it that Bernard squandered every last penny bequeathed to him on gambling, excess materialistic items and bad business deals.
In reality, Bernard de Marigny proved to be one of the most influential men during the early nineteenth century. He was solely responsible for maintaining the French language within government and school systems after Louisiana was traded to America in 1803; he participated in the drafting of the first state constitution after statehood was achieved in 1812; and he also supported illegitimate children earning the same rights as their legitimate other halves in the eyes of the law. Today, the Faubourg Marigny, nestled next to the French Quarter, is a quaint neighborhood with brightly painted houses; it is only because Bernard chose to subdivide his plantation and sell to the French Creoles (as opposed to the Americans) that the charming version of the Marigny as we know it exists today.
But perhaps what Bernard is most known for is bringing the game of hazards to America after he was schooled in England as an adolescent. Bernard was known to play the dice game with his friends, squatting low on his haunches as it was done in England. The Americans teased Bernard and his friends, calling them crapauds, or "frogs" in French. Soon enough, the Creole game came to be referred to as "craps." Bernard de Marigny's legacy still can be seen all throughout New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and his tomb is a frequently visited spot in St. Louis Cemetery #1.
Barthelemy Lafon remains one of the most important architects and surveyors from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He arrived in New Orleans from France just after the Great Fire of 1788 and, despite the devastation caused by the conflagration, the need for architectural advances worked in Lafon's favor. He restored not only the Presbytere, the Cabildo and the jail after another fire in 1794, but Barthelemy Lafon was also responsible for subdividing the Delord-Sarpy Plantation north of the French Quarter. With a penchant for European designs, Lafon incorporated French and continental elements into his work when he set upon designing the area that is today part of the Central Business District and the Lower Garden District, including Lee Circle.
For all of the intellectual work Lafon conducted for the betterment of the city's development, including maps distributed all over the world and the city's first almanac, Lafon was also widely known for his involvement with pirates. The fact that he owned a former Spanish schooner, Carmelita, which was known to have been "captured by pirates or robbers on the high seas" did not better his reputation. Barthelemy Lafon unfortunately met his end in 1820 during a yellow fever epidemic and it is said that a magnitude of lawsuits after his death diminished his vast fortune to a mere pittance.
Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial
Though the Emancipation Proclamation legally abolished slavery in 1863, New Orleans experienced many decades in which equality for African Americans remained suppressed. It was not until 1978 that the citizens of the Crescent City elected the first African American mayor, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial. Prior to this, Morial had also been the first African American to receive a law degree from Louisiana State University. (He attended school even throughout the summer semesters in order to earn this title; had he not tacked on the extra classes, he would have graduated second, as Robert F. Collins was due to finish LSU in the same year and "C" came before "M" during the graduation ceremony).
Dutch Morial is most remembered for fighting to break down segregation, though he generally chose to do so in the courtroom as opposed to protests or demonstrations. In 1967, he was elected the first African American in the Louisiana State Legislature, the first since the Reconstruction era, and he became--once again--the first African-American to be voted into the Louisiana Fourth Circuit of Appeal in 1974. After two terms in the mayoral seat, Dutch Morial had hoped for a subsequent third but was disallowed because of law policies. Nevertheless, Dutch Morial's mayoralty is one that many New Orleanians remember well: he not only increased the employment rate in the city, but he also raised the number of black policemen to one-third of the force's population. Today, the city's convention center bears his name. Additionally, although he was buried in the Morial tomb--directly next to Marie Leveau--his family re-interred his body into a new tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #3 in 2014.
No list of the various famous people buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1 would be complete without mentioning the notorious actor, Nicolas Cage. While he remains hale and healthy today (i.e. alive), that didn't stop Cage from preemptively commissioning a tomb to be constructed in New Orleans' most famous burial site.
Prior to the eccentric tomb-building decision, Nicolas Cage had already lost both the LaLaurie Mansion and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Chapel to bankruptcy in 2009. It was only shortly after his financial downward spiral that Nicolas Cage commissioned a 9-ft tall tomb in the shape of a pyramid to be built. The only words to grace the stucco and brick is the Latin phrase, omnia ab uno, which translates roughly to "all for one" or "everything for one."
What exactly does that cryptic message signify to Nicolas Cage? We really have no idea, but his pyramid tomb now stands tall and very noticeable amongst the traditional family tombs of early New Orleanians. Tourists flock to the unnamed tomb to capture a picture or to remark upon the actor's eccentricity. Though it is currently empty, Nicolas Cage's pyramid-styled tomb is not one to be missed!
Common Tomb Styles in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
As we've already mentioned, cemeteries in New Orleans are not America's typical graveyard with lush, rolling green hills and short tombstones laid out in an orderly fashion. Here are a few different types of tombs you may stumble across while touring New Orleans' oldest extant burial site, St. Louis Cemetery #1.
By far, family tombs in St. Louis Cemetery #1 are the most common type of grave. But why, exactly, were these chosen for initial French and Spanish colonists during the eighteenth century? Simply enough, aboveground tombs were the norm in Southern Mediterranean coastal regions. Rocky soil made it difficult to dig plots of land, never mind a six-foot grave, and constructing tombs or mausoleums which raised up, arching toward the sky, settled this issue. It only makes sense that when early colonists arrived in New Orleans, which was barely habitable at the time, they also brought with them many of their burial customs.
Moreover, these types of interment tombs are frequently spotted where Roman Catholic influence is strong. But don't be fooled by their size: family tombs can fit generations of family members all in that one space. A cardinal ruling for "one year and a day" allows only one family member to be interred in the tomb during that span of time. If multiple people of the same family pass away within that ruling, the second family member will be then placed inside of a separate temporary tomb. Which leads us to . . .
In approaching St. Louis Cemetery #1, the exterior white-washed walls stand tall like a fortress. In places the stucco is cracking, chipping away under the blistering sun and the wet humidity; upon close inspection, it's all too easy to notice that the walls are, in fact, leaning ever so slightly as though the burden of time weighs heavier after each passing year. Though from outside the gates the walls of St. Louis Cemetery #1 appear like any other cement-walled fence, these are not quite the same.
They're actually wall vaults and they house the dead.
In most cases, these vaults were used over the centuries for periods of time when family tombs--because of that "one year and a day" rule--were not available for the newly deceased. The dead were placed inside their temporary home until the prerequisite time had passed and they could join their ancestors. During disease epidemics like yellow fever, however, the dead numbered in the thousands and these wall vaults became preciously valuable as space was incredibly limited. Often, generations of families were interred in one single wall vault as they were unable to afford their own family tomb or mausoleum.
Society tombs are a merge of family tombs and wall vaults. While they look much like the former, multiple families and individuals are interred within like the latter. Over the centuries, society tombs housed the dead of those belonging to various organizations, such as religious groups, benevolent societies, clubs, law enforcement or fraternal societies. St. Louis Cemetery #1 contains many of such society tombs, including the French Mutual Benevolent Society, the New Orleans Musicians Tomb, and the Orleans Battalion of Artillery Tomb, among others.
While some chose interment within these tombs because of membership or nationality reasons, others have done so because they were unable to afford their own family tomb and this proved to be the cheaper option.
Although not as common as in other cemeteries throughout the city of New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery #1 does have a few coping graves still in existence. Referred to as "copings," these types of graves are the New Orleans anti-thesis to the average mausoleum or tomb. Raised at most just a few feet off the ground, copings are called such because they have retaining walls made of marble or granite which pack in the soil. Like the influence of Roman Catholicism on the tombs, coping graves were quite common in the Eastern Mediterranean regions for those who practiced Judaism, Protestantism and Islam, among other worldwide religions.
In many occurrences, coping graves in St. Louis Cemetery #1 and in other burial grounds throughout New Orleans are enclosed with a cast-iron fencing.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 Info
Basin and St. Louis Streets
Monday - Saturday: 9am-3pm
Closed Mardi Gras Day
Tours of St. Louis Cemetery:
Historical Tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1