If you have read anything about New Orleans unique cemeteries you probably have heard that the dead are buried above ground (Why do we use above ground burial in New Orleans?) and that they are described as “Cities of the Dead. This is usually attributed to the writer Mark Twain. What you might not know is that this comes from his excellent book Life on The Mississippi (1881). Life on The Mississippi was his memoir of his time as a riverboat pilot before the Civil War. Mark Twain penned this about New Orleans unique above ground tombs. He wrote:
THEY bury their dead in vaults, above the ground. These vaults have a resemblance to houses—sometimes to temples; are built of marble, generally; are architecturally graceful and shapely; they face the walks and driveways of the cemetery; and when one moves through the midst of a thousand or so of them and sees their white roofs and gables stretching into the distance on every hand, the phrase ‘city of the dead’ has all at once a meaning to him. Many of the cemeteries are beautiful, and are kept in perfect order. When one goes from the levee or the business streets near it, to a cemetery, he observes to himself that if those people down there would live as neatly while they are alive as they do after they are dead, they would find many advantages in it; and besides, their quarter would be the wonder and admiration of the business world. Fresh flowers, in vases of water, are to be seen at the portals of many of the vaults: placed there by the pious hands of bereaved parents and children, husbands and wives, and renewed daily. A milder form of sorrow finds its inexpensive and lasting remembrancer in the coarse and ugly but indestructible ‘immortelle’—which is a wreath or cross or some such emblem, made of rosettes of black linen, with sometimes a yellow rosette at the conjunction of the cross’s bars—kind of sorrowful breast-pin, so to say. The immortelle requires no attention: you just hang it up, and there you are; just leave it alone, it will take care of your grief for you, and keep it in mind better than you can; stands weather first-rate, and lasts like boiler-iron.
This is perhaps the first use of the English phrase “Cities of the Dead ”. Twain wrote from his memory in the 1880s over twenty years after his time as a riverboat Pilot. One does wonder if perhaps he was drawing on his own travels, knowledge and memories of Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, which he had visited in 1867 and written about in his book Innocents Abroad (1872). The Ancient Greeks had referred to ancient above ground burial sites like Pyramids of Giza as Necropolis. Necro means dead and polis meaning city so Necropoli translates to “City of the Dead.” Which makes one wonder what Mark Twain thought when he was visiting Egypt in 1867 just years after his time as a Mississippi River Boat Pilot. Mark Twain must have been in wonder of the wholly alien (to an American) landscape coupled with the awe inspiring Pyramids at Giza. That said though, the massive river (the Nile) which floods yearly must have seemed somewhat familiar to a young Mark Twain having spent years piloting a similarly massive mighty river that is also prone to flooding. Either way, I think one has to assume that the experience stuck in his memory enough that when he was writing years later about his experiences as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi the connection between the Ancient Egyptian Necropolis and the Cemeteries of New Orleans was probably strong enough that he called them Cities of the Dead.
Since Covid, two of New Orleans’s most famous (and oldest cemeteries) have been closed. St Louis #1 has recently reopened for tours but only one company is offering tours and they charge a premium ($35 per person last I checked) for their tour. So you might be wondering what cemeteries are open and worth visiting in New Orleans? We recommend St Louis cemetery #3 in the Bayou St John Neighborhood. This cemetery, constructed in 1853, is easy to get to via streetcar, bus, or Uber from the French Quarter and features a wide range of tomb styles. We offer a free “pay what you feel like” tour of this cemetery, check out our schedule and more info here. We also have a free self-guided cemetery tour of St Louis #3 enabling you to explore “The Cities of the Dead New Orleans” at your leisure and totally free.