The actions of a few impact the many - because of vandalism in New Orleans' cemeteries you are required to have a tour guide to tour St. Louis Cemetery No. 1Buy Tickets Online
Nearly 18 million people visited New Orleans in 2018. The City is known for her magical French Quarter, her historic Garden District, Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, and of course, her cemeteries. The City’s iconic above-ground graveyards - a must when you are below sea level - are a draw for many to New Orleans. St. Louis No. 1 is said to have more visitors a year than Elvis’s home, Graceland. But unfortunately, the Cities of the Dead are not always revered as they should be. In recent years the change to require a tour guide for touring St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is a response to the vandalism
And if hurricanes, constant flooding, and an unforgiving summer that seems to last 9 months out of the year isn’t enough to keep the continuous process of restoration in overdrive, we have the blatant disrespect and disregard for these sacred places.
In 1969, the groundbreaking cult classic Easy Rider shot a film sequence in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery. The main characters played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, along with Karen Black, were all tripping on LSD while in the cemetery. Fonda climbed into the arms of the statue atop the Italian Benevolent Society tomb and draped his acid tripping body around the monument. All of the film shooting inside St. Louis No. 1 was done without a permit. When the film was released, the Archdiocese of New Orleans banned any filming in their cemeteries except for documentaries and educational films that are approved by the Archdiocese.
Halloween season of 1982 brought The Misfits to New Orleans for a show. Keeping in vein with the gorilla-gonzo-punk rock attitude, Glenn Danzig, the band and a slew of fans decided to look for Marie Laveau’s tomb after their performance. They went to the wrong cemetery, New Orleans does have over 40 graveyards; however, they went to St. Louis No. 2. Marie Laveau is in St. Louis No. 1. They were arrested for trespassing at 3:45 in the morning when the police answered a call about a noise disturbance. So very punk rock of those Misfits.
And so begins the trend of vandalism, desecration, and thievery inside New Orleans Cemeteries.
A New Orleans antique dealer was charged and found guilty of conspiracy to commit theft and illegal possession of stolen cemetery artifacts, in 1999. An organized crime ring stole hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of statuary, gates pieces, and memorial ornaments from multiple New Orleans’ graveyards and sold them at auctions and markets in West Hollywood, as well as to private collectors around the world. Family heirlooms and historically significant pieces never to be recovered.
One of the most destructive acts of vandalism occurred in 2013 when it was discovered that New Orleans’ famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s tomb was covered in pink latex paint. Save Our Cemeteries, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve New Orleans’ Cemeteries went in a restored the Laveau tomb in 2014. But unfortunately, vandals began to focus on another tomb. Amanda Walker with Save Our Cemeteries shared with Ghost City Tours more about the unfortunate incident:
Someone randomly began scrawling X’s on a few years prior. This tomb was soon deemed the REAL tomb of Marie Laveau by visitors because her actual tomb was unrecognizable after we restored it! We began referring to the tomb as the ‘Faux Laveau’ tomb, which we are restoring as we speak, thanks to the generosity of a private donor. The tomb once belonged to the Alaux family, originally from Belgium. They lived in a mansion in the French Quarter, were artists, and were quite reclusive. So the tomb has no connection to voodoo, according to our research.
In 2014 Save Our Cemeteries received an “emergency call” to St. Louis No. 1. An entire and intact body had been removed from his tomb. This man was just interred 6 months earlier. That same year a man was arrested for removing bricks to create holes in the vaults to give him access to the bones. He removed the bones of the dead to show tourists as if he was performing a sideshow act. He then encouraged tourists to take pictures of the bones. Something had to be done.
The city’s oldest graveyard is still the most popular cemetery to visit. But individuals can no longer take a leisurely stroll through the gates of St. Louis No. 1. The Archdiocese of New Orleans restricted entry in 2015 to groups led by tour guides registered with New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries and the relatives of people buried there. They had tried everything, including security cameras, which were stolen, so the next step was to restrict access.
Ms. Walker from Save Our Cemeteries has first-hand experience with the frustration and sadness around seeing the City’s treasures desecrated. When asked her thoughts on the decision to close public access to St. Louis No. 1 she responded, “The vandalism was getting out of hand, and New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries had to find a solution. Now the cemetery is much cleaner, safer, theft is rare, and the funds are being reinvested into restoration efforts in the Catholic cemeteries.”
Sherri Peppo, Director of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries, explains their decision best, “We needed to take some steps to both protect the sacred nature of the cemetery and preserve the history that is there, as well.”
The requirement of having a licensed guide to access St. Louis No. 1 is actually a good thing. So much history and intriguing stories lie in the tombs of the interesting citizens of St. Louis No. 1. Having a licensed tour guide gives the visitor the opportunity to hear who these people were and how they shaped the culture and the history of The Crescent City. People like Marie Laveau, Homer Plessy, and Bernard de Marigny, just to name a few, deserve to have their stories told, accurately. By joining a St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery Tour, you will have the opportunity to learn who these historical figures were and how their spirit influences New Orleans today.
When you visit New Orleans, you will begin to understand the City’s unique relationship with her dead. New Orleans is a City that celebrates life and death. The home of the Jazz Funeral and Second Line Procession Parades. A City that won’t tolerate the desecration of her citizens final resting place. And a City where the ghosts are welcome. You just have to have a tour guide for a proper introduction.