A stroll through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and its history
St. Louis Cemetery, on Basin Street just beyond the French Quarter, received its first burials in 1789. The graveyard, operated by the Catholic Church, was necessary because St. Peter Cemetery, which had opened in the French Quarter in 1723 — five years after New Orleans’ founding — was full. Among the people buried in St. Louis No. 1 are Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen; Dutch Morial, New Orleans’ first African-American mayor; Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the landmark civil-rights case Plessy v. Ferguson; and Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, who was buried in New Orleans in 1820 after dying of yellow fever while doing engineering work for the city’s waterworks.
The city’s oldest continuously operating graveyard remains immensely popular, but free entry is a thing of the past. To pay for stepped-up security in the wake of a rash of vandalism, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which operates the cemetery, restricted entry two years ago to groups led by registered tour guides and relatives of people buried there.
- Like other cemeteries in New Orleans, St. Louis No. 1 is characterized by ornate above-ground tombs, a tradition that is owed to the tendency of bodies buried underground in the city — which famously sits below sea level — of working their way back to the surface.
- Not all the notable graves in St. Louis No. 1 belong to dead people. In 2010, the actor Nicolas Cage, an off-and-on New Orleans resident born in 1964, bought a tomb there shaped like a pyramid to be his final resting place.
- The cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Louisiana African American Heritage Trail.
- Other occupants include Etienne de Boré, New Orleans’ first mayor after the Louisiana Purchase and the pioneer of the state’s sugar industry; Bernard de Marigny, who founded Faubourg Marigny and Mandeville; Barthélémy Lafon, the architect and surveyor who was in cahoots with the pirate Jean Lafitte; and the chess champion Paul Morphy.
- The cemetery was a backdrop for the movies “The Cincinnati Kid” (1965) and “Easy Rider” (1969). The latter film features a sequence in which Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and their entourage roam the cemetery while apparently on an LSD trip; a babbling Fonda winds up in the arms of the statue atop the Italian Benevolent Society tomb.
- The “Easy Rider” crew worked in the cemetery without a permit. After its release, the archdiocese banned any filming in its cemeteries except for pre-approved documentaries and educational movies.
- Marie Laveau’s tomb is a magnet for tourists, especially those interested in voodoo. Before the crackdown on visitors, people used to mark her tomb with X’s when making a request. That has been discouraged, but visitors have reported feeling strange sensations when they visit the tomb
- The spirit of Henry Vignes, a 19th-century nomad, is said to roam the cemetery, according to ghostcitytours.com. He wanders because, according to legend, he went to sea and left his papers, including the title to his family’s tomb in St. Louis No. 1, with the woman who ran the boardinghouse where he lived. She promised him all would be well, but while he was away, she sold the tomb. When he returned, he couldn’t get justice, so when he sickened and died, lacking money to buy another tomb, he was interred in the pauper’s section. According to legend, his ghost asks tourists where the Vignes tomb is.
- Then there’s poor Alphonse. According to ghostcitytours.com, not much is known about him except for reports that he removes flowers from other graves and puts them on his own.
In a city where families plan all-day outings at cemeteries on All Saints’ Day to visit and decorate relatives’ graves, it’s only natural that St. Louis No. 1 — one of New Orleans’ so-called “cities of the dead” — would be a cultural touchstone. For longtime New Orleanians, the cemetery is a place where they can commune with departed ancestors — and, perhaps, contemplate the vaults where they will, someday, be interred. For visitors, the cemetery affords a great opportunity to observe the easygoing, almost chummy relationship New Orleanians have with the dead.