In the 36 years I’ve lived only 60 miles from the Crescent City, I have never taken a guided tour, neither by mule-drawn carriage or a walking tour. But when Mrs. Coach emailed me about her upcoming visit to New Orleans and her desire to take a guided tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, I readily agreed to meet up with her. Of course, the tour was secondary to my excitement over seeing her again since having met her and her precious family when they vacationed at Camp Dularge three summers ago.
We met up on an unusually chilly morning for mid-may in south Louisiana–a crisp 55 degrees with a chilly breeze blowing off the mighty Mississippi. We didn’t have to worry about perspiring but whether or not we had a jacket to keep us warm. So, with cameras in tow, we set out walking along Decatur, headed to Community Coffee to meet our tour guide, Trevor, who turned out to be quite a diamond in the rough.
Along the way, he shared with us some fascinating history about New Orleans and how the different countries ruling her also influenced the architecture. He explained that many of the houses called “shotgun” were an improvement on the stuffy houses first built by the British. This long, narrow house design was brought from the Caribbean, more specifically from St. Domingue, Haiti, a French colony later renamed Santo Domingo by the Spanish. Before that, the design is believed to have originated in West Africa.
The high ceilings, tall windows, and a front and back door in alignment, plus the absence of a hallway, allow for the greatest utilization of the breezes coming from the river, passively cooling the structure. The term “shotgun house” was coined more recently by folks noting that one could shoot a shotgun through the front door and out the back door without hitting a wall. We don’t know if that was ever tested, but most certainly these well-ventilated homes were much cooler than those built by the Europeans.
Notice in the above photo how narrow the house is but continues on for a long way in the back. The tour guide claimed that when they needed to add on, they started at the back, ripped out the roof, and added second-story rooms starting from the back of the house, never reaching totally to the front. The reason for that was because property taxes were levied on the amount of street frontage the home occupied. However, my research showed that this ordinance was never found on the records, making this theory questionable. Quite frankly, the buildings are so close together, there was but one way to go and that was up!
As a sidebar, it is interesting to note that in the Vieux Carre` (French Quarter), all the buildings, whether residential or commercial, face the streets in a square, thus leaving the interior courtyards as the common space among all the buildings. Part of a shared courtyard is seen in the photo above.
On with the tour…
Mrs. Coach and I got separated from the tour group at the restroom stop, and thinking we had been left behind, we jogged to the cemetery, making our way quickly around the entire place looking for our group, with no luck. But while we were there, we came across this tomb covered in mysterious markings with lots of weird items laying around and upon the tombs like lipstick, cigarettes, coins, shells, nail polish.
Along the way, Trevor taught us the history behind why tombs down here are above ground. It’s because the water table is only about three feet from the surface, so building above-ground tombs and vaults was the way to go to keep grandma in place and high and dry. Being from Louisiana, its’ something I already knew, but his story-telling about coffins floating down the street was pretty entertaining.
Due to a lack of cemetery space, he claimed that once the bodies were entombed long enough for there to be nothing but bones left, the coffins were pulled out, the bones collected and placed in an ossuary, where all the skulls go in one place, leg bones, in another and on and on. He said the empty coffins were not recycled, but were placed along the street. Man, talk about litter. I was so wrapped up in the visual image of such a thing that I didn’t absorb what he said ended up happening to the empty coffins. I just recall that this process left the family tomb empty to receive the next coffin. I have not yet verified the existence of an ossuary in old New Orleans. That might be a morbid topic for another very morbid post. Nah. Maybe not.
He told an interesting story of how actor Nicolas Cage, an eccentric “character actor”, gets deeply into the study of any character he is to portray. Supposedly, during the filming of “National Treasure”, Nicholas was so enamored with New Orleans that he decided he wants to be buried there. Admittedly, the tomb does reflect something of the nature of the film, although I’m not sure the film has anything to do with New Orleans.
Cage was said to have purchased the last two empty lots available in the cemetery and paid something like $50,000 for them. The inscription, Omnia Ab Uno, means “everything from one”. I’m just not sure what that has to do with anything, but compared to the tombs which have been there since 1789, I’m surprised the Archdiocese allowed such a gaudy display!
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest in New Orleans, is also the resting place of Homer Plessy, known for his landmark civil rights case back in 1896. It is also the final resting place of the first black mayor or New Orleans, “Dutch” Morial.
Tomb of the Voodoo Queen
Remember earlier I said Mrs. Coach and I rushed through the cemetery looking for our group? Well, we actually came across two of those tombs that were marked with a triple x. It turns out there are actually three of them, and the last tomb we visited was the Glapion family tomb where the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, is believed to be interred. This tomb attracts visitors from all over and was clearly the most popular one in the cemetery, as we waited in line to take a gander and photographs.
Here’s how the folklore goes. You must mark Marie Laveau’s tomb with XXX, clap three times, turn around and then yell out your wish. Her spirit will hear your wish and grant it accordingly. With all the folks gathered around her tomb that day, there’s just no way anyone in their right mind would perform such a ritual and yell their wish aloud, so I think folks must go back at night and do those things.
After your wish is granted, you must return to the grave and leave her an offering. From the looks of the photo above, which was taken at the “false tomb of Marie Laveau”, lots of folks had their wishes granted. Although there were various and sundry items left at all three tombs, our tour guide insisted that the best gifts to leave if the Voodoo Queen grants your wish are expensive rum, expensive cigars, and jewelry. Of course, that just makes me wonder if the offerings are for the tour guides and caretakers and not for the spirit of the Voodoo Queen at all! He also mentioned that he periodically arrives in the morning to clear away the junky offerings because they accumulate so quickly. I guess if there were some nicer items left behind, the tour guides would just clean those up as well!
I didn’t have the courage to ask Trevor, but I wish I had asked him this question. What in the world do those triple x markings represent? Since XXX has such a nasty connotation in today’s society, I am curious as to who in the world ever thought up the hair brained scheme to use this as an icon for having your wish granted? Well, he did say that many years ago, a tour company less reputable than his started the myth about marking the tomb, clapping, and yelling to have your wish granted. Nowadays, he says folks just visit the tomb, mark it, leave a small token, and hope for the best.
Whatever the meaning and whomever started this ritual, our tour guide strongly discourages the defacing of the tomb with markings of any kind, because occasionally, Marie’s tomb becomes covered with the markings and must be pressure washed to remove them, which eventually washes away the plaster and compromises the beauty and integrity of the tomb.
Back in December, someone painted the Voodoo Queen’s tomb (pictured above) hot pink, covering all the markings. However, you can see from my photo that it is no longer pink. The culprit used latex paint, which is not recommended because it holds in moisture. The vandal also painted over the marble face plate with white latex paint–another no-no since marble is so porous. Trevor didn’t tell us how the tomb was refurbished, but after being restored, folks are once again leaving their marks, indicating that the wish-making continues unhindered.
(After the tour was over, I did witness him kiss his fingers and press them against the bare bricks seen on the side of the tomb. He might be a believer after all.)
Take a tour
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is just chock full of more amazing and interesting lore and fact than I can share with you here. So much so, that I believe it warrants another visit, but this time, I will go without a guide so that I might lolligag around, reading inscriptions, taking photos, and basically soaking up the spirit of the place.
Next time you’re in the neighborhood, go ahead and sign up for a guided tour. I really think you will be glad you did, especially if you get the most entertaining tour guide on the circuit, Trevor.
Maybe I will share more about the Voodoo Queen in an upcoming post. While you’re thinking about that, enjoy the rest of the photos I’ve posted for you below.