Burial Above Ground:
The above-ground vaults for which New Orleans is noted is as much a product of its European and Caribbean pedigree as it is of the topography. Because the city is entirely below sea level, the water tables are high, and frequent flooding, especially prior to the establishment of the protective levee system, made in-ground burials a dubious proposition.
A History of Cemeteries in New Orleans:
St. Peter’s, the first city cemetery, was established in 1721, in the French Quarter, and utilized the “customary” below-ground burials. Lessons were learned when coffins were displaced in heavy rains. In 1789, St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 was established, the first in the area with raised tombs.
St. Louis Cemetery Number 2 was dedicated in 1823, followed by St. Louis Number 3 in 1854. The latter, along with Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District, is one of the most easily accessible in the city. The cemetery walls are surrounded by brick wall vaults that resemble old-style baker’s ovens. These vaults save space by permitting multiple burials in small areas.
One of the more unusual cemeteries, even for New Orleans, is St. Roch’s. Its chapel is most notable for the relic room, where plaster casts of body parts, braces, crutches, and the like, are placed in recognition of cures affected through the intercession of St. Roch. Praying for cures in a cemetery seems a bit curious to some people, but praying to find a husband, also a common practice at St. Roch’s, may seem even stranger. The supplicants don’t seem to think so, however.
A dramatic and fascinating type of burial is the “society tomb.” In the 19th century, benevolent societies started to appear, and one of their functions was to erect large tombs for their members, who might otherwise not be able to afford a funeral. A large elk atop a mound in Greenwood Cemetery guards the remains of the members of the Order of Elks. The Confederate Monument in Metairie Cemetery holds the remains of hundreds of Confederate soldiers.
The Feast of All Saints:
On November 1, (All Saints Day), New Orleanians pay special attention to their graveyards. Friends and relatives of the deceased turn out en masse, cleaning and painting tombs, and decorating them with fall flowers and other mementos. Religious services are held in the cemeteries. In early days, All Saints Day was quite a family event, when everyone socialized, bringing refreshments and leaving keepsakes such as "immortelles”. While this may seem bizarre to some, it is perfectly in keeping with the unusually strong spiritual soul of New Orleans. On November 1, 2005, New Orleanians continued this tradition in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, not only to honor the souls of the deceased, but also as a coming together in a continuation of one of the traditions the bind us.
When visiting New Orleans cemeteriestours are recommended.