Cities Of The Dead

Tombs in Lafayette CemeteryThe above-ground tombs in the cemeteries of New Orleans are often referred to as "cities of the dead." Enter their gates and you will be greeted by decorative, rusty ironwork, and blinded by the sun bleached tombs. Crosses and statues on tomb tops cast contrasting shadows adding a sense of mystery. Votive candles line tombs on holidays to remind you the Dead have living relatives that still care.

New Orleans has always respected the dead, but this isn't the reason the tombs of our departed loved ones are interred above ground. Early settlers in the area struggled with different methods to bury the dead. Burial plots are shallow in New Orleans because the water table is high. Dig a few feet down, and the grave becomes soggy, filling with water. The casket will literally float. You just can't keep a good person down! The early settlers tried by placing stones in and on top of coffins to weigh them down and keep them underground. Unfortunately, after a rainstorm, the rising water table would literally pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. To this day, unpredictable flooding still lifts an occasional coffin out of the ground in those areas generally considered safe from flooding and above the water table.

Another method tried was to bore holes in the coffins. This method also proved to be unsuitable. Eventually, New Orleans' graves were kept above ground following the Spanish custom of using vaults. rows of tombs The walls of these cemeteries are made up of economical vaults that are stacked on top of one another. The rich and wealthier families could afford the larger ornate tombs with crypts. Many family tombs look like miniature houses complete with iron fences. The rows of tombs resemble streets. New Orleans burial plots quickly became known as "Cites of the Dead." Here is a question for you -- how can you bury more than one family member in each vault? How can a tomb hold all of those coffins? According to a local ordinance, as long as the previously deceased family member has been dead for at least two years, the remains of that person is moved to a specially made burial bag and put to the side or back of the vault. That coffin is then destroyed and the vault is now ready for the newly deceased family member. What happens if a family member dies within that two year time restriction? Generally, local cemeteries are equipped with temporary holding vaults and the newly deceased family member is moved into their final resting place when the time restriction is met.

On your way into New Orleans from the airport, you can glimpse little eyes little eyes! the newer Metairie Cemeteries. The older and more dilapidated cemeteries are St. Louis No. 1, 2 and 3, located near the French Quarter. The paths are twisted; crumbled corners of tombs jut out; and dead ends add to the eerieness of the area. Pirates, politicians (notice how those two go together?) and voodoo queens are buried in these cities. Caution: The "Cities of the Dead" are alluring, but dangerous.

Don't go there alone-- travel with a group or arrange to attend a tour. The narrow paths and tombs offer concealment for muggers. You will notice that flowers, votive candles and hoodoo money are left at many of the notable graves, particularly Marie Laveau, the notorious Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Some say that individuals still practice rituals at her grave. New Orleans has many different ways of honoring the lives of those who have died.

One of the Catholic traditions followed in this city is observed on Good Friday, when we celebrate the Stations of the Cross (in memory of Christ's suffering and crucifixion). Catholics walk on a route of nine local churches, stopping to pray at each. The Stations of the Cross ends at St. Roch's Cemetery at 3:00 p.m., the hour of our Lord's death. St. Roch lived during the middle ages, and worked with those suffering from the plague. The cemetery is named after him because of a pledge made by a priest who prayed to him during the yellow fever crisis of 1868. It is now a shrine, and Mass is said there on Monday mornings.

There are 42 cemeteries in the New Orleans area with many interesting, fascinating stories. Tours of the cemeteries are conducted by several tour companies; these tours are definitely unique, and are worth the memories!

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