There are three sides to every story: your side, their side and the truth.
– ERNIE SYLVESTER
With the convention guaranteed to take up most of Stringer’s time, we didn’t plan much for our stay in New Orleans – but one thing I was determined to do was a tour of the city’s historic St Louis Cemetery No. 1. Established in the late 1700s, the cemetery is worth seeing for the beautifully preserved marbled tombs as well as its being the final resting place of many prominent New Orleans families and historical figures.
Since 2015, access to the cemetery has been limited to the families of those interred there and to registered tour groups. There are many companies offering tours of different parts of New Orleans’ haunted history, as even the most cursory of Google searches will show – however, we bypassed all of that and booked via a little office round the corner from our hotel. Sidebar: people in New Orleans do not understand the word “cemetery” in a Scottish accent. Anyway, we were lucky in that the office booked tours for Haunted History Tours, which describes itself as the city’s oldest and largest tour company (and also comes with the seal of approval of The Travel Channel – nope, me either).
The cemetery tours take place during the day, and we went for the earlier (10am) slot, as we knew better than to risk our pale British bodies in the midday sun. It’s a two-hour tour, which costs $25 if you book direct. And sure, daylight might not make for the spookiest of atmospheres – but the same company offers a whole range of tours exploring the vampires, voodoo and other legends of this most haunted of cities if that’s more your thing.
We were all in for the history though (although the two for one Hurricanes on offer via the booking office also sounded like a great deal) so the early slot suited us just fine. You can tell a lot about a city from the way it deals with its dead and our tour guide, Ernie, was a great source of information about the history of New Orleans in general as well as why its burial practices evolved the way that they did. Long story short: if your city was built on what was effectively a swamp, don’t expect anybody you bury in the ground to stay there for long…
The tomb of Marie Laveau, the infamous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, was one of the first things we were shown on entering the cemetery. Laveau was raised Catholic, and the spirits she apparently called upon in her practice owed as much to Catholic saints as the African occult. That, or she was a hairdresser who got most of her information in more conventional ways from her clients. Whatever the actual truth (there are disputes over whether she is even buried in the Laveau family tomb, or whether her body was moved to another site elsewhere in the cemetery) it’s a great story, and one that Ernie relished telling.
Even after Laveau’s death, people still came to the cemetery to ask for prayers to be granted. Traditionally a prayer should be accompanied by three small offerings left in front of the tomb, and three “x”s should be marked on the tomb itself – although that’s technically vandalism, and one of the reasons entry to the cemetery is now so restricted. Once a prayer has been granted, you’re then supposed to come back and circle the marks you left. “The only time I’ve seen the three ‘x’s circled was when the Saints won the Super Bowl,” Ernie said, before telling us that if we wanted to send up a prayer we should just turn around three times on the spot.
The cemetery is also home to some spectacular ornate tombs erected by the various friendly societies of New Orleans, including the largest: the Italian Mutual Benefit Society Tomb. These multi-vaulted tombs could be used for fee-paying members of the particular society and their families, saving them the expense of their own family tomb.
The tomb was designed by Pietro Gualdi and allegedly has space for over 1,000 occupants: after the traditional year and a day mourning period had passed, the remains in one of the vaults could be pushed to the back where they would fall into the space below. Rumour has it that the heads of the statues were stolen by Dennis Hopper during the filming of Easy Rider and now live on his mantlepiece – yet another great story, although the fact that the Archdiocese of New Orleans now only allows filming in its cemeteries for pre-approved educational and documentary purposes is no fiction thanks to the antics of Hopper and his co-star Peter Fonda.
Among the architectural wonders in the cemetery is at least one eyesore: the pyramid-shaped tomb belonging to Nicholas Cage. It’s … well, let’s just say that if you went to the cemetery knowing only that one of the tombs was his, you’d probably be able to pick it out.
My top tips for your visit to the cemetery? Make sure you take lots of water, and remember to apply sunscreen: the New Orleans weather might be unpredictable, but if you’re there on a blistering hot day like we were the white marble acts as a total heat trap. It wasn’t until late afternoon, when I got back to the hotel, that I realised how badly I had been burned – and I never burn!
That little inconvenience aside though, I’d thoroughly recommend exploring this bit of New Orleans’ history if you’re visiting the city. It was an incredibly informative – and, thanks to Ernie, entertaining – two hours that was easily one of the highlights of our trip.