New Orleans Cemeteries are famous for their above ground tombs. Though this style is common to regions colonized by Spain as well as by France, they are quite rare in North America. They are one of the many reasons New Orleans is a unique and fascinating place. I studied architectural conservation, and have for years been writing about cemetery conservation as well as doing restoration work in a variety of historic cemeteries in Louisiana and doing masonary work in the New Orleans area. During this time, I have been frequently dismayed by the behavior of the living among my most favorite of clients: the dead. Due to their age, their location in a unique subtropical climate, and various economic woes, our cemeteries are very fragile. Allow me to bestow upon you a courteous request to respect the dead when you visit a New Orleans Cemetery, by considering the following:
Many visitors do not realize that burials still happen in all of the city’s cemeteries. They are not mere relics of the past here for entertainment. There may be people mourning a loved one nearby, so be respectful of this fact. Likewise, do not remove memorials or spiritual offerings from burial sites, as you probably would not from any other burial site. Not only is it insanely disrespectful, you’ll just get all bogged down with curses and nobody wants to bring that home with them.
This is what Maria Laveau’s tombs looked like before it was restored. This is vandalism.
The “XXX’s” on tombs left as a voodoo offering? Sorry….not true. This myth was generated by tour guides generations ago, in reference to Marie Laveau’s tomb. Since then the habit has been continued, leading to much damage to historic tombs. Though people do leave spiritual offerings of all kinds, you are not bringing good luck upon yourself by vandalizing a stranger’s tomb. If you are interested in such spiritual practices there are many resources in New Orleans to learn about them.
Just because tombs are in (sometimes shocking) disrepair, does not mean that they are abandoned. In New Orleans tombs are legally treated exactly as if they were houses. If the property falls into disrepair, it is likely because the family can no longer afford maintenance. This does not mean that they are no longer important to a family, and it certainly doesn’t mean there are no longer human remains inside. I know of a man who removed bricks from a tomb so he could fit his hand inside. He would charge tourists $20 to take photos of the human remains for them. Apparently some of us are really desperate for a thrill, but don’t make it harder on families that are already struggling by damaging these tombs further
When you see work being conducted in a historic cemetery, please be respectful. This is skilled labor that requires concentration, and working outside year round in New Orleans is a demanding job. Do not touch or grab their tools, or photograph them without their consent. Once I turned around to see a drunk lady in heels climbing up my ladder to take a selfie, promptly crushing the plaster cornice that I had spent hours building. We are all mortal beings, but your lifespan may be drastically shortened if you destroy someone’s work. Just….don’t.
I am surprised at how often I hear that restoration work is “ruining history”. Hey, nobody loves a patina more than me! The crumbling old tombs, covered with ferns, are indeed beautiful, but like any structure they need maintenance. he traditional lime-based materials used to construct the tombs are intended to be limewashed once a year to keep them intact. For generations they received this maintenance from families on All Saints Day, but sadly this tradition has become less common. When preservationists restore a long neglected tomb, its change in appearance may appear shocking. In reality, it is being restored to how it was originally intended to look. There is evidence that many tombs in the Creole cemeteries were limewashed bright colors including yellow, rust red, and blue. This is how their residents wanted to be remembered. And without restoration they will crumble into dust, sooner rather than later. And then nobody gets any patinas.
Last but not least, don’t be like the infamously idiotic “etsy witch” and steal bones. Yes, sometimes you will see human remains. And if they are from an in ground burial within the city limits, they are likely there because someone could not afford to bury their loved one otherwise. Poverty tourism is not a good look on you, and OPP jumpsuits are a very unflattering shade of orange. Leave them be!