It’s a typically steamy 90 degree September morning in New Orleans. Armed with my trusted GPS, I embark on foot to join a group of would-be travel writers for a tour of the city’s oldest extant cemetery. After getting lost zigzagging the same streets, drenched with sweat, I finally find the group of eight awaiting the last straggler. With a huge smile, the quirky, purple haired woman clad in a black and white sundress emblazoned with a skull motif, introduces herself as our guide, Monique. Monique embodies the very essence of what I consider New Orleans. Her funky, individualistic style, wry sense of humor, warmth, friendliness, and professionalism symbolize the essence of the Big Easy.
Entering St. Louis 1, established in 1789, Monique informs us that, because of vandalism and tomb desecration, the archdiocese has decreed that the public cannot enter it unless escorted by a licensed tour guide.
Winding our way through the haphazard aisles and vaults, our footsteps crunch on the stone and seashell paved pathways. Interspersed among well-cared for plots are fragile, crumbling, and craggy tombs sporting varying states of disrepair. The distinct architectural styles of the above-ground vaults represent the ethnic diversity of the city’s history, including Creole, Chinese, Dutch, and French.
The murmur of other tour groups is heard in the background. Monique regales us with interesting tidbits of NOLA history. Standing in front of Marie Laveau’s tomb, we learn about the myths surrounding the famed Voodoo priestess. Our next stop is an ‘orphan tomb’ etched with X’s. Unscrupulous and unlicensed tour guides would claim Laveau, was buried there. They would then perpetuate the rumor that she would grant your wish if you drew an ‘X’ on the tomb, and completed some ritual. If it’s granted you need to circle your ‘X’, and leave an offering.
Pausing in front of the tomb of Bernard de Marigny, a wealthy aristocrat who inherited his money. Rumor has it that he gambled away all his fortune. ‘He’s best known for introducing the game of craps to the U.S.’, explains Monique.
A large pyramid shaped vault belongs to the actor, Nicholas Cage. One Another vault is engraved with the words ‘closed forever’. ‘If you upset a person who owns the deed to a family tomb, he or she can close that tomb forever, so that after the deed owner is buried, no one else in the family can rest there’, clarified Monique.
Other notable people buried here include Homer Plessy, a civil rights activist who challenged segregation, and William Claiborne, the first American governor of Louisiana.
As we continue walking, just outside of the original walls, we come upon a grassy area. The chirping and trill of birds’ floats into my awareness. ‘This is the heretic’s section where the ground is unconsecrated. The church considered Protestant heretics’, reveals Monique.
Save Our Cemeteries, in conjunction with other groups, strive to repair and restore the decaying tombs and vaults. To book a tour visit the website www.saveourcemeteries.org. The tour costs $20.00.