Cities of the Dead: A Journey Through the Cemeteries of New Orleans

MARK TWAIN SAW HOW MUCH THE NEW ORLEANS OF THE DEAD RESEMBLED THE ONE FOR THE LIVING. Writing about the city in Life on the Mississippi in 1883, he observed that the vaults where the dead were buried there resembled the homes on adjacent streets, laid out on pathways like roads. “When one goes from the levee or the business streets near it, to a cemetery,” Twain wrote, “he observes to himself that if those people down there would live as neatly while they are alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages in it; and besides, their quarter would be the wonder and admiration of the business world.”

I was just as eager to visit the New Orleans of the dead as the one for the living, and spent more than a day traveling from one cemetery to another. And there are a lot of them, even if a few of the oldest and most famous (St. Louis Nos. 1 and 2, Lafayette No. 1, the ones that Twain probably visited) are currently closed except for families and occasional tour groups. This is because they’re so famous that vandals and ghouls have added to the damage that two centuries of weather and time have had on these remarkable places. So when you visit be respectful – there are people here, after all, and they deserve to be treated as kindly as the ones who can still see you through their windows.

St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery

The oldest cemetery still in existence in the city, St. Louis No. 1 is just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter, a tightly-packed city block full of the burial vaults that make New Orleans unique. The city’s high water table and regular flooding is given as the reason why the dead are buried above the ground here, but you’ll find plenty of “regular” graves in other cemeteries.

Cultural reasons are just as important in explaining why New Orleans’ graveyards don’t look like anything else in the United States or Canada, with the French and Spanish rulers of the town for its first century importing their burial customs. The proximity of St. Louis No. 1 to the streets of Treme and the Quarter make Twain’s remarks about a “city of the dead” clear to see.

St. Louis No. 1 was opened in 1789 and replaced an earlier cemetery, St. Peter Street, on the other side of Rampart in the French Quarter. It’s cramped, full of narrow pathways around the burial vaults, each of which contain numerous remains. As in nearly every New Orleans cemetery, there are “grave gifts” – trinkets, offerings and messages – left at many tombs. Thanks to its appearance in the 1969 movie Easy Rider it’s been a magnet for tourists as well as vandals for decades, and the (purported) tomb of “Voodoo Queen” Marie Laveau is regularly defaced with “XXX” markings that require regular cleaning, and led to restrictions on public access to the cemetery by the Catholic archidiocese.

I was able to get into St. Louis No. 1 thanks to the family of an old friend, a New Orleans native who was buried there during lockdown. It’s all a bit overwhelming – tombs fill every square foot, leaning at odd angles, and range from plain to lavish to eccentric. (Actor Nicholas Cage had a white pyramid built there, waiting for him to take up permanent residence in the city one day.) It’s worth the effort to try and see what’s probably the most iconic cemetery in New Orleans, but please try to be respectful and avoid ruining it for everyone else who wants to visit.

Metairie Cemetery

New Orleans’ cemetery district gives a whole other dimension to the “city of the dead.” It’s a cluster of cemeteries at the end of the helpfully-named Cemetery line of the Canal streetcar, a convenient route right to their gates from downtown. Of all the cemeteries built at what was once the edge of the city (Greenwood, Cypress Grove, Gates of Prayer, St. Patrick Nos. 1, 2 & 3, Charity Hospital, Hope, St. John’s, Odd Fellows Rest, Dispersed of Judah, Masonic Temple, Holt), Metairie Cemetery is by far the largest and grandest.

Metairie was opened in 1872 on the site of a former racetrack, which abides in the concentric ovals paths running through the grounds. Excluding adjacent Lake Lawn Cemetery, it covers over 127 acres, with water features that hint at the bayou that was filled in to create the racecourse. The size and number of grand monuments hints at the wealth and importance of the city at its peak, and Metairie is the final resting place of senators, governors, mayors, generals, businessmen, philanthropists, musicians, artists and writers, including Anne Rice, author of Interview with the Vampire, the book that made New Orleans a bucket list destination for horror fans.

Metairie Cemetery

Long avenues of monuments stretch out as far as the eye can see, making Metairie more like the parkland cemeteries of England, Canada and the US than the rest of the city’s densely packed graveyards. The vaults, crypts and monuments are largely unique, like the Egan family tomb, modeled on a ruined Irish abbey, the massive Moriarty monument, built to loom over the rest of New Orleans society by a man whose wife was snubbed by the town’s elite, and the Brunswig family’s pyramid, with its mourning gatekeeper figure and sphinx designed by architect and sculptor Albert Weiblen.

Metairie Cemetery

There are some streets of humble tombs of brick and stone, but Metairie is justly famous for the quality of its grand tomb architecture and statuary, much of it the legacy of Italian and German craftsmen who made the city their home. Just by one entrance there’s the tomb of Eugene Lacosst, a wealthy hairdresser and stock speculator whose exquisitely-carved cream marble monument (Albert Weiblen again) is modeled on that of a cardinal in Florence, Italy. Then there’s the Old-Testament-meets-Art-Deco crypt of the Besthoff family, co-founders of the city’s K&B drug store chain.

Celtic crosses, Moorish temples, broken columns, draped urns, mourning angels – Metairie has them all, laid out across its vast, beautifully-tended grounds, and a target-rich environment for a photographer. You’d probably need at least half a day to take in most of what’s worth seeing in Metairie. And by then you’d have to remember to make time to visit any of the dozen adjacent cemeteries along Canal Street and City Park Avenue, each worth seeing for different reasons.

Greenwood Cemetery

On the other side of the Pontchartrain Expressway from Metairie is Greenwood Cemetery, the second-largest of the graveyards in New Orleans’ cemetery district. Where Metairie is sylvan and luxurious – the afterlife equivalent of the city’s Garden District – Greenwood is more like a suburban subdevelopment, with its long rows of near-identical burial vaults in veined, gray and white marble, each topped with a cross silhouetted against the sky.

Greenwood was opened in 1852 by the Firemen’s Charitable & Benevolent Association and covers 150 acres laid out in two tidy grids angled against each other. Its most iconic monument is the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks society tomb by the entrance at City Park and Canal, with the vigilant bronze stag glaring south toward the city. (Yet another Weiblen monument.)

While Metairie is the preferred final resting place of New Orleans’ social elite, Greenwood is home to its solid middle class – the shopkeepers, businesspeople and civil servants. It also contains the graves of several baseball players and jazz musicians, and the writer John Kennedy Toole, whose novel A Confederacy of Dunces, set in New Orleans, won the author a Pulitzer Prize eleven years after his suicide.

The portion of the cemetery closest to City Park is the most idiosyncratic, giving way to the streets of townhouse-like burial vaults as you walk north. Each will deliver rewarding photos for very different reasons. It’s worth remembering that Greenwood is still a very active cemetery, hosting new burials every week, so the cemetery tourist must behave accordingly.

Cypress Grove Cemetery

Right across City Park Avenue is Cypress Grove, another cemetery founded in 1840 by the Firemen’s Charitable & Benevolent Association. Older than Greenwood, it has a very different character, with none of the orderly rows of vaults. Of all the cemeteries I visited in New Orleans, Cypress Grove came closest to the overgrown, haunted, even decrepit image of the city’s cemeteries popular in photo essays and videos.

Cypress Grove Cemetery

Cypress Grove had more ruined tombs than I encountered anywhere in the city – a startling sight when you see it, especially if above ground vaults are still a novelty. It’s worth remembering that the cemetery district isn’t far from the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, where the levees were breeched and the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina. Most of the area was under water, and it’s likely that a lot of the damage in Cypress Grove dates from Katrina, still unrepaired.

Originally opened for the burial of firefighters, Cypress Grove is full of society tombs – large, multilevel tombs paid for by religious, ethnic, public service and trades associations to save their members the high cost of private burials. Like most New Orleans cemeteries it’s bordered by walls of “oven vaults” – stacked rows of niche tombs designed for budget or even temporary burials. Among its collection of tombs and monuments is the cast iron Leeds family crypt, coated with a patina of oxidation and rust, the final resting place of a city mayor.

Cypress Grove is an idiosyncratic, striking cemetery, with a long, narrow oval of roads bracketing either side of a main avenue. Next to one wall of vaults, in a dark corner of the cemetery, is an ancient live oak with its core blackened and exposed. It’s become a shrine of sorts, with votive candles, grave gifts and money piled inside or tucked into fissures in the wood. There’s a lot to take in if you visit Cypress Grove.

St. Patrick No. 2

The St. Patrick Cemeteries – Nos. 1, 2 and 3 – stretch out in a long narrow line on either side of Canal and City Park. The land for the cemeteries was purchased by the parish church on Camp Street in the Central Business District on a ridge of high land in Metairie in 1841, and were much needed not long after when yellow fever epidemics broke out in the city in 1847 and 1853. In August of 1853 alone 1,100 people were buried in St. Patrick No. 1, in a jumble of crypts, burial vaults, in-ground burials and “coping graves” – slightly raised graves bordered by a partially buried wall, another grave type unique to New Orleans.

St. Patrick No. 2 Cemetery

This tightly-packed stretch of graves would give way to more orderly lines of burials elsewhere in the cemetery, after the epidemic abated. St. Patrick is a very working class cemetery, dating back to when Irish workers were imported into the area to do jobs considered too dirty or dangerous for slaves, like digging the canals through the city’s malarial swamps. Even between yellow fever outbreaks, this explains the density of the older sections of St. Patrick.

There’s a little bit of everything in St. Patrick, excluding the grand monuments you find in Metairie. There are tombs and vaults in whitewashed plaster and crumbling brick, and headstones in hard granite and soft white marble, their inscriptions fading with the weather. Walking from St. Patrick No. 1 to No. 3 you get a scattershot history of Catholics in New Orleans, written in often broken stones.

Masonic Cemetery

Founded at the end of the Civil War by the Grand Lodge of the State of Louisiana Free and Accepted Masons, Masonic Cemetery – sometimes called Masonic Temple – is a triangular graveyard on City Park Avenue, divided by Conti Street. In true Masonic fashion its design is symbolic, with the pathways mimicking the order’s symbols of the square and the compass, though you’d have a hard time seeing that strolling along its neat, straight rows.

While not strictly reserved for Masons, the cemetery abounds in Masonic emblems and inscriptions. There are plenty of society tombs built for individual lodges, and large communal coping graves. It feels very clean and tidy and rational, in keeping with the image Freemasonry has been at pains to project for centuries.

Masonic Cemetery

Steps and stairs are a recurring motif in Masonic, but the most striking example of all is near the corner of City Park and Bienville, a large lodge tomb built from brick in a gothic style, with a staircase to its roof along one wall. Old photos reveal that the brick arches were once plastered and painted, and that the gate at the bottom of the stairs wasn’t installed. A friend who was born and raised in New Orleans said that it was once a popular location for heavy metal bands to take photos. (Stairway to heaven, perhaps?)

Masonic Cemetery provides a glimpse into several of the many subcultures and associations that have made up New Orleans civic society for centuries. My favorite is the society tomb of the Red River Pilots Association, an alliance of steamboat pilots who plied the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Shreveport back when the town was a major port. Another favorite is the grandiose inscription on the marker of John Quincy Adams Fellows, who died in 1897 – “an exemplar of the perfect ashlar” who now rests in “the celestial lodge.”

Holt Cemetery

The most unique and affecting burial ground in New Orleans’ cemetery district is Holt Cemetery, which began operation in 1879 as a “potters field” – a place for burying the poor and indigent – in the wake of another yellow fever epidemic. Just seven acres, it replaced Locust Grove, the city’s original potter’s field, whose graves are still beneath the soil on the grounds of the recently-demolished public school that was built on the site.

Holt Cemetery

Holt is an entirely below ground cemetery, overseen by a single gravedigger who works unpaid except for cash from families who bury their dead there. (He was once on the city payroll, but they stopped funding regular upkeep at Holt years ago.) Graves are re-used often, and only the gravedigger knows which ones are available. There are thousands of people buried within the tiny footprint of Holt, which the city has threatened to close several times, though they haven’t been able to settle on a location for a successor.

Graves are made from almost any material, from stone, concrete, brick and cinder block to wood, plastic garden edging, chain link fencing, recycled road signs and PVC pipe. Grave gifts abound, and one very recent child’s grave was piled high with toys – a heartbreaking sight. There’s an informal, intimate atmosphere, and inscriptions will feature nicknames and personal messages. Holt feels more alive and immediate than any other cemetery in New Orleans; you have an aching sense of the people buried there, and the grief of the friends and family left behind. There are lots of veteran’s graves.

Holt Cemetery

Holt is famous as the final resting place of trumpeter Buddy Bolden, a key but unrecorded figure in the birth of jazz music in the city, though his grave’s location has been lost like so many others. The cemetery’s monuments are transitory by nature, so it’s not surprising that it looks very different in older photos, and that flooding during Katrina devastated it more than any other cemetery in the area. Finding Holt takes a bit of work – it’s just north off City Park Avenue, by Toulouse Street, next to the grounds of Delgado Community College.

St. Roch Campo Santo

St. Roch Cemetery – or St. Roch Campo Santo – is off the beaten track from most New Orleans cemetery tours, out in an area between the Seventh Ward and Florida neighbourhoods, just a few blocks east of Elysian Fields Avenue. I wouldn’t have known about it if I hadn’t watched a YouTube video by chance while researching my trip. Like St. Patrick, it’s a real Catholic working class cemetery, but unlike those graveyards it’s small – two burial grounds the size of city blocks, divided by the delightfully-named Music Street.

St. Roch Campo Santo

St. Roch was founded in 1874 by a Catholic priest who promised to build a cemetery and chapel if his congregation was spared during a yellow fever outbreak. The chapel is open to the public for limited hours, and has a display of offerings – votives, gifts, prosthetics – left behind by petitioners whose prayers were answered. (Unfortunately it was closed on the day I visited.)

St. Roch has everything you expect to see in a New Orleans cemetery – burial vaults and coping tombs, wall vaults and society tombs. There are rows of identical vaults like you’d expect in Greenwood, and plots adorned with sculptures that humbly echo Metairie and Cypress Grove. For such a relatively young cemetery, it feels ancient and well-used, and is full of rewards for photographers.

St. Roch No. 2, on the far side of Music Street, apparently had fallen into a state of disrepair just a few decades after it opened, but it was cleaned up by the local parishioners and the whole cemetery has a well-cared for and intimate feel that’s unique in the city. I’d recommend St. Roch to anyone with limited time in the city who’s unable to schedule a tour at St. Louis No. 1 or take the trek up Canal to the cemetery district for a day’s hike. St. Roch might actually be the perfect New Orleans cemetery, especially while so many of the inner city cemeteries remain closed to the public.

(To go behind the scenes and see more photos from this trip go here.)

Photos and story © 2021 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved

Thanks to Visit New Orleans for their assistance.