Voodoo – the word itself brings up crazy images. Like most visitors to New Orleans, we were expecting sensationalism and the bizarre. However, on our New Orleans cemetery tour, we encountered something far different and more complex.
In 1984, my parents brought me to New Orleans for the World’s Fair. I was young and impressionable. The iconic image that stuck in my mind was the rows upon rows of above-ground tombs. My father explained to me that the water table in New Orleans was so high that they couldn’t bury people below ground. It seemed plausible to my young mind and I never questioned it. As it turned out, that explanation was more fantasy than reality.
During our weekend in New Orleans, we happened on a description of a New Orleans Cemetery History Walking Tour. We both love photography and thought the images from the cemetery would be interesting (similar to our experience in Prague’s Jewish Quarter Cemetery). However, we weren’t expecting to be so enchanted with a City of the Dead so steeped in history.
We met our tour guide Renee at the local voodoo zombie shop. Yes, you heard me correctly. They have a local voodoo zombie shop in New Orleans. She would be our guide for the next few hours on a New Orleans cemetery tour of St. Louis #1 – the oldest surviving cemetery in The Big Easy.
Our first stop on the tour was actually the old St. Peter Street Cemetery – where they used to bury the bodies below ground (busting the myth of only above-ground burials). Imagine our surprise when we learned that the old St. Peter Street Cemetery extended from St. Peter Street over to Toulouse Street and part of it was actually under our hotel, the Maison Dupuy! We hadn’t heard that the Dupuy was haunted and we didn’t experience any evidence of it, but it sounds exciting!
A New Orleans cemetery tour is also a lesson in voodoo. In the Big Easy, Voodoo is tough to pin down and is a blend of African folklore, French culture, and perhaps most importantly, Catholic beliefs and rituals. Today, voodoo seems to be more marketing machine in the tourist gift stores than anything tangible. And you can get your fill of voodoo in those gift stores: voodoo dolls, tarot cards, spell books, t-shirts and even bottle openers.
Despite her voodoo affiliation and being called the “Voodoo Queen” of New Orleans, Marie Laveau was at least officially Catholic. She’s purportedly buried in the Catholic cemetery: St. Louis #1, which is where we found her tomb. For many, visiting Marie Laveau’s tomb is the highlight to any New Orleans cemetery tour visit. There’s a lot of legend and superstition about visiting Laveau’s tomb. In fact, just days before our visit, vandals visited her tomb and pained the whole thing pink. It looked garish and sad compared to the beautiful natural façades of the neighboring tombs.
For me, the highlight of our New Orleans cemetery tour was learning the complex history of race relations in the city. In The Big Easy, there was a large population of free blacks. So, when the U.S. began segregation laws in the late 1800s, it came as a bit of surprise to this free population in New Orleans. Nothing brought this home for me more than visiting the tomb of Mr. Homer Plessy. Mr. Plessy was arrested for riding in a “whites only” railcar and his subsequent legal challenge became the basis of the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case – establishing decades of “separate but equal” in this country. Visiting Mr. Plessy’s modest, but dignified tomb was an opportunity to connect with this incredible historical event for us.
We found this New Orleans cemetery tour to be very interesting because it was a lesson in segregation. The cemetery is not racially segregated (unlike cemeteries in Atlanta) and you find Mr. Plessy and other African Americans next to whites. However, the cemetery is strictly religiously segregated – predominantly Catholic, but protestants on another side of a brick wall. This is not the kind of segregation we would have expected to find.