New Orleans. One of the most haunted, intriguing, and notorious cities in the United States. A place that I’d wanted to visit for years before I finally went on a whim for my 30th birthday. Best. Decision. Ever. Full of mouthwatering food, haunted history, voodoo, witches, alligators, and more, New Orleans is definitely one of my favorite places I’ve visited. Of course, I knew that I wanted to visit the famous cemeteries there, but I was faced with the timeless question: which cemetery is the best, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 or St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. Read on to find out what the two most famous New Orleans cemeteries have to offer. And bring a bottle of water. Or two. You’ll thank me later.
Originally published October 31, 2018. Most recently updated February 5, 2020.
First, some history about New Orleans cemeteries
You’ll notice cemeteries all around New Orleans – more than just the most famous two. Most of the cemeteries share many characteristics though. From the tours I did in Lafayette and St. Louis, I found the history of death and burials in New Orleans to be absolutely fascinating. Hopefully you do too!
Each cemetery is surrounded by very thick stone walls.
Why? These walls house the bodies of the deceased who do not have a place to be properly laid to rest. This includes people who are waiting for their turn to be buried in their family’s mausoleum (more on that later). Over the years, these walls have settled, making some of the slots partially underground and no longer accessible.
Each cemetery is filled with mausoleums.
For the most part, people are not buried underground, like they are in most places around the world. Here, there are family mausoleums to house the dead. Let me backtrack a moment. These cemeteries are old. Hundreds of years old. Yet, they are still actively used today.
Back when the cemeteries were established, each family had the opportunity to purchase a portion of land within the cemetery walls to build their own mausoleum. These mausoleums were, and still are, elaborate. While some are made of simple brick, others are made from the finest Italian marble.
Each family could decide how to design and build their mausoleum. It’s fascinating to see the contrast and to get a feel for each family’s place in society. Many families still own their ancestors’ mausoleum and bury family members there. They are responsible for the upkeep. You’ll notice that some have been abandoned, and have been overtaken by nature over time. A few more have been sold off to new families – and that’s not cheap. Also, when a new family buys a mausoleum, the future deceased family members will be buried with strangers.
So, how do the mausoleums work?
When a person in a family died, the body would be wrapped in cloth and placed in a slot in the mausoleum. Have you ever heard the expression “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole”? Well it originates in New Orleans. When it was time for the next family member to be added, they would open the slot, and push the remains of the previous body off the ‘shelf’ and into a ‘pit’ below with a long pole. Through this process, hundreds of family members can be buried inside one family’s mausoleum. Isn’t that incredible?
Okay, but what happens if there is more than one body to bury?
In order to do each person justice, their body remains in the above-ground space for at least one year before being pushed to the bottom. Of course, it is possible that someone else in the family would die before that year was up. So what happened? Remember when I mentioned that the walls of the cemeteries are filled with bodies? Those spaces were used as temporary placeholders for the bodies until at least one year has passed since the previous burial in the family. After one year, the first body is ‘pushed’ off the shelf and the next body is moved into place.
The famous graves of Plessy & Ferguson
If you grew up in the United States, you most likely learned about the famous Supreme Court case of Homer Plessy versus John Ferguson. This is the case that established the principle of “separate but equal” for whites and blacks in the late 1800s. Homer Plessy was the man who was only 1/8 black by Louisiana law, but bought a ticket for the Louisiana Railroad and boarded a “white” train car. John Ferguson was the Louisiana judge who ruled that Plessy was violating the law, and his decision was upheld in the US Supreme Court. After their deaths, Homer Plessy was laid to rest in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 while John Ferguson is in Lafayette Cemetry No. 1. Opposed even in death.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Of the two most famous cemeteries, this one boasts much more greenery and is absolutely beautiful, in a somewhat haunting way. Residing in the Garden District of New Orleans, magnolia trees line the main pathway to this cemetery. While stunning, also keep in mind to be careful of the roots that come out of the ground throughout the cemetery. Lafayette is also open to the public. You do not need to have any reservation or tour to visit. In fact, we were lucky enough to find a guy offering FREE tours when we walked in! Of course we took him up on his offer, along with about a dozen other people. He walked us through the cemetery for about 25 minutes and gave us several stories about the people buried there.
Lafayette Cemetery has several mausoleums worth noting. First, there is Judge John Ferguson, as mentioned previously, in the Earhart family crypt. There are also a few mausoleums dedicated to members of organizations or homes, instead of families (who were unable to afford the space), including the firefighters from Jefferson Fire Company No. 22 and the children from the Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys. The last group of tombs worth mentioning are my favorite. In one of the back corners of the cemetery, there is a ‘secret garden’ housing four family mausoleums. These mausoleums are the homes for four boys who played in the cemetery as children and vowed to be friends ‘in life and death’.
Unlike the Lafayette Cemetery, St. Louis is not open to the public. As the oldest cemetery in the city of New Orleans, the historical society would like to preserve the place as much as possible. Therefore, the only way to visit is to arrange a tour either through the cemetery itself or an outside tour company. Also unlike Lafayette, St. Louis is devoid of any plant-life or shade. It is simply tombs and mausoleums on top of concrete. Why does this matter? Because it is HOT. And I mean very hot. This is why I sad you’ll want to have a bottle of water with you! The sun beats down on the cemetery and the only relief in the minimal shade from the taller mausoleums.
There are a few things in St. Louis Cemetery that has made it famous. First of all, it is the final resting place of Madame Marie Laveau, the Queen of Voodoo. You will notice that many of the visitors come just to pay their respects to her and to leave ‘offerings’. Her family’s crypt blends in among the rest, and would not be noticeable apart from the small plaque near the ground to mark Marie’s resting place. In both cemeteries you’ll also notice “XXX” scratched into the stone of several tombs. It comes from an old voodoo belief to do this, leave an offering, and make a wish. On a side note, please don’t do this. It’s desecration of the tomb and disrespectful to the family.
Secondly, and somewhat drastically, Nicolas Cage has purchased a plot in the cemetery. Not only that, but he has also built a very unique mausoleum to eventually house his dead body. It’s a giant white pyramid – right in the middle of these beautiful, ancient mausoleums. It definitely stands out, and I don’t think in a good way. But some people love it! If you visit, you’ll see several lipstick prints on the stone from women coming to visit… I don’t get it.
Famous Film Scenes
Lastly, if you’ve seen the movie Easy Rider, you’ll recognize some of the tombs from St. Louis from the famous acid-trip scene. New Orleans locals will tell you that the producers for the film never had any permissions to film inside the cemetery, and some believe that the actors are the ones who broke the arm on the Italia tomb. Since then, the Archdiocese banned filming in the cemetery for entertainment purposes.
I hope that my guide has helped you learn a little more about the history of death in New Orleans and the culture of the cemeteries. Both St. Louis and Lafayette cemeteries are definitely worth a visit, but please keep in mind that they are still functioning cemeteries and may occasionally be closed for funeral processions. Make sure you have a back-up plan!