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Only in New Orleans are cemeteries major tourist attractions

New Orleans, Louisiana is the only place in the world where cemeteries are major tourist attractions. In many parts of the world, the dead are buried six feet underground. However, because New Orleans is built on a swamp, the deceased have to be buried above ground in elaborate stone crypts and mausoleums. Over time the cemeteries, with elaborate sculptures and other decorative artwork embellishing the tombs, have come to come to resemble small villages. They are known by the nickname of “Cities of the Dead.”

New Orleans cemetery
Margaret Minnicks

There are 42 cemeteries in the New Orleans area with many fascinating stories. When you enter the cemetery gates, you will be see rusty decorative ironwork and blinded by sun-bleached tombs. Crosses and statues jut from tomb surfaces cast contrasting shadows. Votive candles line tombs on holidays remind you that the dead have living relatives who still care.

The dead in New Orleans are interred above ground because the water table is very high. If a dead person would be buried underground, the grave would become soggy and filled with water. The casket will literally float. Early settlers tried placing stones in and on top of coffins to weigh them down and keep them underground. Unfortunately, after a rainstorm, the rising water table would literally pop the airtight coffins out of the ground.

Another method was to bore holes in the coffins. This method also proved to be unsuitable. Eventually, New Orleans' graves were kept above ground, following the Spanish custom of using vaults. The walls of some cemeteries are made of economical vaults stacked on top of one another, while wealthier families could afford the larger, ornate tombs with crypts. Many family tombs look like miniature houses, complete with iron fences. The rows of tombs resemble streets and this is why New Orleans burial plots quickly became known as cities of the dead.

Many have wondered how more than one family member could be buried in one vault. One tomb can hold one hundred or more bodies depending on the size. According to a local ordinance, as long as the previously deceased family member has been dead for at least one year and a day, the remains of that person can be moved to a specially made burial bag and placed at the side or back of the vault. The coffin is then destroyed, and the vault is now ready for a newly deceased family member. If a family member dies within that one year a day, he or she is placed in a temporary holding vault. After the time period has elapsed, the newly deceased family member is moved into his or her final resting place.

If friends of the family could not afford a vault, then the family would give permission to have their friends buried with the family. Within the cemetery, there are elaborate vaults and not so elaborate vaults of families who are not so wealthy.

Take a look at the slideshow that goes along with this articles. Notice the number of people buried in the vault. The pictures were taken by this writer while on a tour of St. Louis Cemetery #3. If you ever visit New Orleans, you will find a tour to one of the cemeteries very interesting.