I’ve spent most of my life in D.C., New York and L.A. That is to say, I’ve spent most of my life in tourist destinations, stuck in traffic behind someone with a map and sharing sidewalks with people looking up and pointing. New Orleans is yet another of these many destinations, a magical and historical place that attracts people from all over the world. Before I left the East Coast, I made a serious effort to enjoy the attractions people came from far and wide to see. I went to monuments and museums. Instead of seeing them through the eyes of a kid who’d “been there, done that” since my many elementary school field trips, I pretended I was from Nebraska and seeing it all for the first time. I’ve never regretted taking the time to do all that. I only regret the places I didn’t make it to, like the top of New York’s World Trade Center.
Keeping all that in mind, when some new residents suggested it, I was delighted to take a tour here in New Orleans. Spirit Tours New Orleans offers tours that address the more mystical aspects of the city, including graveyards, Voodoo and hauntings, without ever departing from a rigorous attention to facts and history. We took the “Cemetery and Voodoo” tour.
The group meets in a courtyard coffee shop in the French Quarter before being led like ducklings to St. Louis Cemetery #1. If you’re a fan of Easy Rider, you already know the place. Without permits or permission, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, playing counter-culture bikers, brought Toni Basil and Karen Black, playing prostitutes, to film a long segment in the cemetery where their character drop acid. Maybe it’s wrong or sacrilegious, but I’ve always liked that scene, even the image of Fonda tripping in the statue-arms of the regal Italian Benevolent Society Tomb.
The cemetery came into service in 1789. Of the thousands of bones laid to rest in this one city block, several belong to notable figures including Homer Plessy, the free man of 1/8 African descent who Rosa Parks-like, sat in the “Whites only” section of a railroad car in 1892 spawning the debate that led to Plessy v. Ferguson. Also laid to rest there are Bernard de Marigny (after which the Faubourg Marigny section of NOLA was named), who brought the game of Craps to the United States, Paul Morphy, one of the first world champions of chess, and Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe, architect of the United States Capitol and the Baltimore Basilica, the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the U.S. There’s a tomb for those who fought in the Battle of New Orleans, the greatest and final land victory of the war of 1812 against the British. The bones of Etienne de Boré, the first mayor of New Orleans and “Dutch” Morial, the first African-American mayor of New Orleans also rest on the property.
But, perhaps the most well known resident of the cemetery is Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, the NOLA-born free woman of mixed descent who died at 99 years old in 1881. Like Jim Morrison’s grave in France, the tomb is a destination for many and is defaced daily. Apparently, someone a few decades ago spread the rumor that inscribing 3 X’s on the tomb gets your wish granted. Yes, it’s a silly as it sounds and both the defacing and the constant cleaning degrade the tomb. That said, the power of the tomb is palpable. Many leave offerings from candy to coins and, as we waited, a young man came to practice his religious rituals and make his offerings. Like Catholicism, Voodoo believes that there are spirit go-betweens who can help us confer with our God. Catholics call these “Saints” and Voodoo calls them “ancestors.” And like Catholicism, it is believed that we need priests to help us curry favor with these go-betweens, to petition the dead for help. Though Marie Laveau’s mystical powers may have derived more from her time spent as a hair dresser to the rich (and an ear for their secrets) than from our ancestors, she remains perhaps the most famous Voodoo priestess.
Our guide, Adam, did a wonderful job of explaining the local approach to burial traditions. He explained about above-ground tombs and how so many, many bodies may fit in a single crypt (hint – no metal coffins). He especially drove home the local idea that our dead are with us. This idea was especially evident with the tomb painted blue and decked with silk flowers. Apparently, the doting son of the woman laid to rest there changes the tomb regularly to please his mother. The latest incarnation is a tribute to her favorite color.
After a fairly thorough investigation of the cemetery, including its sparse and bland Protestant section and the Musician’s tomb, we wandered over to Basin St. Station, a former railroad station now used as a cultural center. As we regrouped in the air conditioning (it was a 78 degree January day), the tourists were treated to our version of scattered showers, which is to say, it was raining on one side of the building and sunny on the other. After a brief history lesson, we left through the sunny side and headed out to Armstrong Park.