If you had told me that one day I’d willingly step foot into a cemetery, I wouldn’t believe you. If you told me that I’d get rained out of the first visit and go back a second time, I would laugh in your face. If you told me it would be my favorite part of a trip to New Orleans, I’d probably just walk away in disbelief.
Let me explain myself a little bit. Growing up, I had a love-hate relationship with the idea of going to my grandparent’s house. I loved going there, since my Nan was such a good baker and my Pap was a superhero and their house was full of interesting treasures to explore. They had the creepiest basement, but if it was daytime you best believe I’d go down and see what I could find. But I hated it because across the alley from their house was a cemetery. Not just any cemetery, but the creepiest cemetery you could imagine (at least it felt that way to child-Susan). My Pap would tell us the best ghost stories that would scare me senseless, making it almost impossible to fall asleep at night.
I learned to hold my breath when passing a cemetery for fear that one of the deceased would steal my life. I never strayed from my parents side when we attended funerals because I was terrified of stepping on someone’s grave. Upon researching New Orleans and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, I realized I recognized it from various movies and television shows. As I read more and more about it, I came to the conclusion that it was a place we needed to go. What was coming over me?
We thought it would be best to go with a tour guide to get the most out of the experience, and we went through Free Tours by Foot. You pay what you can afford to take one of their tours, which is such a great idea. Some tour companies can charge so much for a couple of hours. While we want to explore the cities we visit and learn as much as we can, sometimes it’s hard when you are on a budget. They’re located in multiple cities around the country, so if you’re looking for engaging locals to give you a tour that fits your budget, check them out.
We met our guide outside of the cemetery where he gave us a brief history of the city, the Garden District, and the cemetery. Lafayette Cemetery was established in 1833. You can find it in the Garden District, right on Washington Street. We took the St. Charles Streetcar there the first day, and it was very easy to find. It’s the oldest of the seven municipal city-operated cemeteries. It’s both non-segregated and non-denominational and you can find immigrants from over 25 countries and natives of 26 states.
He asked us, “Do you all want to meet some dead bodies?” We followed him into the cemetery, excited to learn more history and hear some stories.
Have you ever been in a cemetery in the middle of a massive thunderstorm? I don’t recommend it.
The rain started slowly, building up to a torrential downpour. That wouldn’t have been so bad, but then thunder and lightning started. There was no where to run to for cover, and after living in Seattle for a couple of years, we didn’t have an umbrella. The lightning cracked directly above us, followed closely by ear-shattering booms of thunder. It felt like we weren’t welcome in the cemetery. We quickly left, catching an Uber back to our Air BnB.
The next day was our last in the city, and I desperately wanted to go back to Lafayette, even just to walk around for a few moments. We got there right before they opened the gates, and were lucky enough to meet one of the caretakers, who took us on a tour of the cemetery himself. He walked us through the Secret Garden, past Anne Rice and the Folger tombs and showed us the orphanage and firemen tombs (orphans and firemen are buried for free). He also walked us past where Judge Ferguson of Plessy vs. Ferguson case was buried. Brigadier General Harry T. Hays, leader of the 1st Louisiana Brigade was also buried here; we assured our guide that even though we were Northerners, we could appreciate Southern history.
We learned how bodies are actually laid to rest; when a new body needed to be put into the tomb, it was put on the top-most shelf. That meant that the bodies all had to be shifted down, with the oldest bodies found together on the bottom shelf. There are about 7,000 people buried in Lafayette Cemetery, with 1,100 family tombs. Because New Orleans sits just above sea level, all of the coffins must be buried above ground; if you try to bury someone six feet under, chances are they won’t stay buried forever. Burial traditions of French and Spanish settlers in the region also played a part in the creation of the cemetery.
He encouraged us to take photos and tell everyone about our time in the cemetery. The cemetery is still in use, they had a funeral the week before we were there. It really was quite beautiful and peaceful, and completely unlike the cemeteries of my childhood.
We had such a fantastic time in New Orleans, but immediately after we left Lafayette, we headed to my Aunt and Uncle’s house outside of Orlando, Florida. To say I had been looking forward to this last visit was an understatement of the century! I hope you’ll join me later for a look at our time in Florida!
Until next time!