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Voodoo and History on a New Orleans Cemetery Tour

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Voodoo – the word itself brings up crazy images. Like most visitors to the Big Easy, we were expecting sensationalism and the bizarre. However, on our historic New Orleans cemetery tour, we encountered something far different and more complex.

In 1984, my parents brought me to the Big Easy 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 here was so high that they couldn’t bury people by putting the coffin in the ground, so they did above ground burials. It seemed plausible to my young mind and I never questioned it. As it turned out, that explanation was more fantasy than reality.

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The Above Ground Tombs in St Louis Cemetery 1
Above Ground Tombs

During our weekend in New Orleans, we happened on a description of a 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 Cemetery No. 1 – the oldest surviving cemetery in The Big Easy.

A single tomb in St. Louis #1 that is allowed to be personalized with paint and decorations
Personalized Tomb in St. Louis #1

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! (More on the hotel in our Maison Dupuy review below.)

This New Orleans graveyard 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 Cemetery No. 1. which is where we found her tomb. There is a lot of confusion surrounding Marie Laveau, starting with her name. You sometimes see it spelled Marie Leveau, Marie Lauveau, or even Marie Laveaux.

Then people get confused about the whole voodoo thing. The self-styled voodoo queen is sometimes called a voodoo witch by some people. There are also rumors that the burial vault contains one of Marie Laveau’s descendants.

For many, visiting the Marie Laveau tomb is the highlight to any New Orleans cemetery visit. There’s a lot of legend and superstition about visiting Marie 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 facades of the neighboring tombs and burial plots.

Plaque for the Tomb of New Orleans Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau
Tomb of Marie Laveau in the Glapion family crypt

For me, the highlight of our New Orleans cemetery history 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 here. Nothing brought this home for me more than visiting the tomb of Mr. Homer Plessy, one of the most famous people from the city.

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 above ground burial vault was an opportunity to connect with this incredible historical event for us.

Details and imagery on one of the tombs in St Louis Cemetery
Details on one of the tombs

We found this tour to be very interesting because it was a lesson in segregation. The cemetery is not racially segregated 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.

A concrete cherub on a tomb in New Orleans St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Cherub on a tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1

Where We Stayed

Nothing is more representative of this city than the French Quarter. Everyone wants to stroll Bourbon Street, drinking an adult beverage and taking in the fun atmosphere. The city’s motto is laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll) – and roll they do. Hurricane Katrina brought dark days to the city, but the city is back in the light and recovered from the devastation. There’s no better time to visit the Big Easy, and no better place to stay than the Maison Dupuy Hotel, one of the best hotels in the French Quarter.

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The Courtyard at the Maison Dupuy
The Courtyard

The greatest thing about the Maison Dupuy is its location – it is right in the New Orleans French Quarter – the pulsing heart of this city. But the French Quarter also has the reputation for constant partying (which is not also conducive to sleeping). Maison Dupuy is the best of both worlds. It is just two short blocks off Bourbon Street, but on a quiet residential street. It was the perfect location for us!

The hotel itself was built into the several existing buildings. This means the building has plenty of charm and personality. Our room was a giant open, loft-like space, complete with a balcony. We’d sum up the Maison Dupuy as the perfect marriage of comfort and convenience.

Sitting room and bedroom

One thing we learned on our cemetery tour (mentioned above), is that the current Maison Dupuy hotel was built on the site of the old Peters Street Cemetery. This added to the charm and history of the property, while supposedly making the Maison Dupuy one of the few haunted hotels in New Orleans.

The Maison Dupuy has ample French Colonial charm in the heart of the New Orleans French Quarter. You could not ask for a better base for your NOLA adventures. We will absolutely stay here again when we return to The Big Easy.

The Nicolas Cage Pyramid Tomb
The Nicolas Cage Tomb is located in the cemetery (currently unoccupied)

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