There is no shortage of spooky graveyards in America, especially in the South, and when it comes to burying the dead no city does it better, and with more extravagance, than New Orleans.
Burying the dead in a city that is below sea level and prone to flooding is no easy task. The dead prefer to stay dry and if not kept that way will make their displeasure known to the living, usually in the middle of the night.
Laid out just like miniature cities, with narrow streets and street signs, a New Orleans graveyard can be an unnerving thing to walk through. It is easy to get lost in the maze of crypts.
Walk through any graveyard in New Orleans and you will feel the presence of the dead. Many corpses are entombed at eye-level so when you feel the urge to peek through a crack in an older crypt, be prepared for what might be looking back at you. In some crypts, coffins are optional.
Graveyards in the Big Easy, the popular nickname for New Orleans, harbor their fair share of restless ghosts. The oldest cemetery, Saint Louis No. 1, holds the tomb of Marie Laveau, the famous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Due to vandalism, only visitors escorted by licensed tour guides may visit the cemetery. Legend has it that if a visitor marks Marie’s grave with three X’s and turns around three times while shouting their wish, Marie will grant the wish. As you can imagine, this has led to her crypt being covered with X’s.
Cities of the Dead also harbor other things as well. Like the old saying goes, it’s not the dead you have to worry about, it’s the living that will kill you. The high walls that surround most of these graveyards harbor a spooky feeling of isolation, which also leads to unsafe conditions for visitors. On a recent visit to New Orleans, my wife and I were having dinner in the French Quarter when the waiter cautioned us not wander too far inside one of the nearby walled “cities of the dead”. He told us that if we did go inside to only do so in the daylight. Once inside, he warned that we stay close to each other and not stray too far from the entrance. He told us with a serious look on his face that if the ghosts didn’t get us, something else would.
The above ground crypts used in the cities of the dead in New Orleans serve as slow-baking crematoriums. The bodies rapidly decompose in the sweltering heat, quickly breaking down into nothing but bones. Lime poured on the body will speed up the process and sweet smelling plants placed around the tombs can help mask the odor of decomposition. One year later after the flesh is gone, the family can open the tomb and have the bones pushed to the rear where they fall into a deep crevice in the back of the tomb. This allows reuse of tomb for other family members over multiple generations. This explains why many of the tombs are so old. Some of these old tombs hold piles of bones that date back to the founding of the city.
If you ever find yourself in the Big Easy, visit one of the cities of the dead. There is nothing quite like a walk among the corpses of Voodoo queens, witches, and just plain old normal folk to remind you of just how short life is, and how extravagant the hereafter can be.