Life, death and voodoo in New Orleans

In New Orleans — where due to a peculiar cultural stew — they live a little differently than everyone else, they also spend eternity differently.

You can’t help but notice the cemeteries, a maze of crypts and mausoleums — more works of art than mere markers. Almost like tiny houses. That’s why they’re known as “Cities of the Dead.”

They’re meant to be substantial and sturdy. And definitely above ground. Reason: geography.

Over the centuries, New Orleans, which is below sea level, learned the hard way not to bury its dead. It only took a heavy rain to make bodies resurface.

It’s also common to bury generations of families in the same tomb to save space. Once again, weather comes into play. The heat can be so strong, it’s like a slow cremation. What’s left is deposited onto the tomb floor, leaving it ready for the next occupant.

One of the oldest and well-known burial grounds is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, across from the French Quarter in Treme’.

I was ready to roam myself, but saw big warnings on the Internet not to do that because muggers have been known to prey on tourists.

So I took a tour, and ended up running into plenty of folks wandering around by themselves. Oh, well.

The tour guide, who I gather was or is an arts student at one of the local universities, was almost worth the show. He was a sort of a yuppie hipster (ragged beard and a pipe smoker), and very passionate about his city.

Anyway, St. Charles No. 1 is so cool, actor Nicholas Cage has reserved what’s apparently his final resting place there.

nic cage

The inscription on the tomb loosely means “Everything From One.”

He’ll have plenty of famous company.

plessyIncluding Homer Plessy, a Treme’ resident and civil rights activist. He was the plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, a landmark court case challenging racial segregation in the 1800s.

I knew of the case, but the tour guide lectured the crowd, saying their education was lacking if they didn’t learn it in school and proceeded to explain why.

And Marie Laveau, a hairdresser who became a voodoo icon.

Voodoo masks at so-called spiritual temple I ran into near Marie Laveau's resting place.

Voodoo masks at so-called spiritual temple I ran into near Marie Laveau’s resting place.

Voodoo stems from religious practices that accompanied the slaves from Africa. Lore has it that slaves resisted their owners’ attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the region’s dominant religion. They were given more latitude to congregate with free blacks.

 

marie laveau

This is supposed to be her real tomb.

voodoo vandals

Not this. We were adamantly told the markings on this other tomb are not voodoo symbols. They’re simply vandalism.

family vault

Every tomb was interesting. Many with French surnames, reflecting the French and Creole history. And primarily Catholic —  the city’s dominant religion.

better family vault

We were shown tombs that had clearly shifted and sunk over the years. Not a good thing. We were told if families don’t pay for their upkeep, they’re replaced with relatives of families who will.

Here’s more information if you’d like to explore the “Cities of the Dead.”

 

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