NOLA Cemetery Guide (Tours, History, Famous Graves, & More)
September 4th 2020
New Orleans, Louisiana, is a city full of life, with music around every corner all day and night, parades and parties whenever there’s a chance, a culture that’s uniquely its own, and some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet! Leave it to this lively city to turn even death into a celebration. When someone passes away in New Orleans, loved ones will fill the streets with music to celebrate that life as much as mourn their death.
It’s easy to see why NOLA cemeteries carry so much value and intrigue, and how they attract thousands of visitors every year. Keep reading TripShock’s NOLA Cemetery Guide for everything you need to know about about visiting a New Orleans cemetery, including the best tours, famous graves, and more!
Table of Contents
- History of New Orleans Cemeteries
- Why are New Orleans Cemeteries Above Ground?
- Different Types of Tombs
- What is the Most Famous Cemetery in New Orleans?
- St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
- St. Louis Cemetery No. 2
- St. Louis Cemetery No. 3
- Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
- Charity Hospital and Katrina Memorial Cemetery
- Greenwood Cemetery
- Are Any Famous People Buried in NOLA Cemeteries?
- Are New Orleans Cemeteries Safe?
- NOLA Cemetery Tours
- Carriage Rides and Cemetery Tours
- Guided Walking Tours
- Self-Guided Walking Tours
- Cemetery Bus Tours
- What to Know Before you Go
History of New Orleans Cemeteries
Little girl taking in the beauty of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
When New Orleans was founded in the early 1700s, the Catholic Church created a cemetery just outside the city limits to bury their deceased. The St. Peter Street Cemetery remained the only cemetery in the city until the 1780s. In 1788, along with cholera and yellow fever outbreaks, a massive fire took the lives of so many people, that a new cemetery had to be built, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
While St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 has the traditional, above-ground tombs New Orleans is famous for, the original cemetery was below-ground, unmarked, and eventually redeveloped on. Even in the 2000s, bodies and caskets are still being found underground where this unmarked cemetery once stood.
With so many deaths plaguing the Crescent City, honoring the dead became more of a ceremonial deal celebrating life. While much more ornate than in the past, this tradition still holds true today. There are so many sights, sounds, and smells to take in when you’re in the French Quarter, but some of the most significant landmarks, however, are the ones that can’t be seen.
Why are New Orleans Cemeteries Above Ground?
Above-ground tombs in cemeteries are a New Orleans staple
Gorgeous and gothic, above-ground tombs are a signature look of New Orleans. With rows of these tombs, NOLA cemeteries have often been referred to as, “Cities of the Dead.” This is because the cemeteries actually resemble cities, many with streets and street signs. This, however, is not why the tombs are above ground.
First of all, these types of tombs were customary in France and Spain, and the idea was brought over from the colonists who settled the area. The NEED to have these types of tombs, however, is because New Orleans itself sits below sea level, and there are not many places where you can dig 6 feet down without hitting water first.
Since St. Peter Street Cemetery was below-ground, the original settlers found out the hard way what happens when the city floods. Caskets and their occupants would quite literally be found rolling down the river, and above-ground tombs basically put an end to that.
Different Types of Tombs
The stand-alone, above-ground tombs are not the only type of tombs you can expect to see when visiting a NOLA cemetery. While there is always an exception to the rule, generally there will be 5 types of tombs:
Beautiful family tombs make for a haunting atmosphere in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
These are probably the tombs that come to mind when thinking about cemeteries in New Orleans. These above-ground tombs are built to accommodate not just one, but the whole family.
Iconic 1969 film, “Easy Rider” has a scene in the film at this exact spot in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Similar to family tombs, society tombs are created for members of organizations and their families. This includes religious groups, fraternal societies, military and law enforcement, etc. A cardinal ruling for, “one year and a day,” allows only one person to be interred in the tomb during that time frame. If multiple people of the same family pass away within that time frame, the second family member will be placed in a wall vault, until the year and a day has passed, then they will be transferred to the tomb.
Wall vaults will typically enclose a New Orleans cemetery
Wall vaults are a perfect example of why you should never judge a book by its cover! On many occasions, the walls that surround the cemetery are more than just walls, but actual vaults that house the dead. This is where that, “one year and a day” rule comes into play, because if the family tomb was unavailable for the newly deceased, they would be placed inside the wall vault until they can be moved to the family tomb.
Image of coping graves at Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 by Michael Homan via Flickr
Coping graves, or copings, are basically the opposite of the family tombs. They will be, at most, a few feet off of the ground, and have retaining walls made of marble or granite to pack in the soil and seal it.
Ledger stones are often embedded in concrete where burials happened underground, usually beneath the tablet itself
Ledger stones are large, flat stones placed on top of a grave to seal in a coffin. Many are ornate and engraved with family history and kind words.
What is the Most Famous Cemetery in New Orleans?
There are over 40 cemeteries in New Orleans, each one unique in its own way
With so many beautiful and popular cemeteries to choose from in the French Quarter and beyond, it’s hard to pick just one. If you have the time for it in your vacation schedule, checking out more than one cemetery would be ideal, but if you only have time for one, check out one of these famous cemeteries in New Orleans:
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 attracts over 100,000 visitors every year
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is a must-see when visiting New Orleans. We even added it to our recent article discussing ghost hunting in NOLA. Opened in 1789, it is the oldest cemetery in the city, and over 600 tombs call this cemetery home. With over 200 years under its belt, this cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. In fact, travelers worldwide come to NOLA to photograph the famous St. Louis Cemetery #1.
This absolutely beautiful and historic cemetery is only accessible when with a tour guide, and is located at:
425 Basin Street, New Orleans, LA, 70112
St. Louis Cemetery No. 2
Image by Michael Homan via Flickr
St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 is the second oldest cemetery in New Orleans, located just a few blocks away from St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. It was created in 1823 just outside the city at the time, to attempt to stop the highly contagious cholera outbreak. It was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
300 N Claiborne Avenue, New Orleans, LA, 70112
St. Louis Cemetery No. 3
St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 is home to beautiful tombs considered works of art
St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 is a little bit further away from the French Quarter than the others, but is still just as magnificent. One of the largest “cities of the dead,” it stretches nearly a half of a mile back from the entrance.
3421 Esplanade Avenue, New Orleans, LA, 70119
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Image from Wikimedia
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is located in the Garden District, and is one of the oldest city-governed cemeteries. With almost 500 wall vaults, 1,100 family tombs, and over 7,000 people buried there, there is a great amount of history to be absorbed.
1427 Washington Avenue, New Orleans, LA, 70130
Charity Hospital and Katrina Memorial Cemetery
Image by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr
In the beginning, the Charity Hospital and Katrina Memorial Cemetery was an unmarked, mass grave used to bury the victims of the yellow fever outbreak. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city constructed a memorial there for the storm victims in the shape of a counter-clockwise weather map symbol. The unclaimed casualties are buried there in above-ground mausoleums.
This cemetery was reinvented to be a peaceful resting place, and a memorial to those lost during the storm.
5056 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA, 70119
Image from Wikimedia
Opened in 1852 and owned by the Firemen’s Charitable and Benevolent Association, Greenwood Cemetery is one of the most popular cemeteries in New Orleans. Visitors can expect landmark monuments, history and ornate tombs, and modern mausoleums.
5190 Canal Boulevard, New Orleans, LA, 70124
Are Any Famous People Buried in NOLA Cemeteries?
From celebrities to historical figures to the Voodoo Queen herself, there are a ton of famous people buried throughout the city of New Orleans. Below are some of the more notable people who were laid to rest in one of NOLA’s many beautiful cemeteries:
Are New Orleans Cemeteries Safe?
Visiting a NOLA cemetery on a guided tour is a great way to see the city
Are New Orleans Cemeteries Safe? Short answer, yes, but there are a few important things to keep in mind:
- New Orleans is a city with some neighborhoods that are less safe than others. While the cemeteries are safe, it is always important to be aware of your surroundings.
- Do not go to a cemetery at night without a professional and licensed tour guide. Most cemeteries are only open during the day anyways, but those that are open at night require guests to be with a guide for safety reasons and to create a better overall experience.
NOLA Cemetery Tours
Deciding to visit a cemetery in NOLA is a no-brainer, but picking out the perfect tour to see one can be difficult. But don’t fret! From ghost-hunting tours after dark to carriage rides with cemetery tours included, there are multiple options to accommodate most groups.
Carriage Rides and Cemetery Tours
Hop aboard a carriage and travel through time, and the French Quarter, to the famous St. Louis Cemetery No. 1! Carriages rides are a great deal and a great amount of fun! They also allow you to get up-close-and-personal with the French Quarter, while being able to sit back and relax. All tours include a short walking tour inside the cemetery.
Guided Walking Tours
Tour guides are a wealth of knowledge, and a great way to learn something new
Guided, walking cemetery tours are probably the most popular tour type when it comes to cemeteries. With an educated and enthusiastic guide leading the walking tour, you’ll learn the ins and outs of the cemetery, and the people and spirits that inhabit it.
If you’re wondering if Cemetery Tours are family-friendly, you’re in luck! In a recent traveler story, an extended family found a cemetery walking tour to be a great activity for everyone in the group including teens!
Self-Guided Walking Tours
Pictured above is the future tomb of actor Nicolas Cage
Self-guided walking tours are a great option for those who want to explore at their own pace. It is important to remember, however, that it is not always free to enter a New Orleans cemetery. Some places require payment or donations upon entry.
Cemetery Bus Tours
A tour group having a blast on the BYOB Nightly Cemetery Bus Tour by NOLA Ghost Riders
Cemetery Bus Tours are another great way to explore these historic cemeteries. Bus Tours give you a chance to beat the New Orleans heat and give your feet a break from all the walking you’ve done already while in the French Quarter. The Cemetery Bus Tour by NOLA Ghost Riders is the only tour that provides travelers with a nighttime cemetery adventure, and it’s BYOB, so you can get your fill of spirits, and spirits!
What to Know Before you Go
Being adequately prepared for the activities you book may prevent any possible issues from popping up
An amazing time nonetheless, New Orleans can still be hectic when unprepared. Fortunately, we’ve put together a couple of important things to know before you go, to help make your trip to the Big Easy as easy as possible.
The organization, Save Our Cemeteries, works to protect and preserve historic cemeteries
With so much history and culture connected to each New Orleans cemetery, it’s easy to understand why there are rules and regulations in place to preserve these hallowed grounds. It is important to understand these restrictions for not just your safety, but for the cemetery, staff, and spirits:
- Many NOLA cemeteries may be on the National Register of Historic Places, making vandalism unacceptable, and a state and municipal violation.
- Some cemeteries are only accessible when with a tour guide.
- Some cemeteries do not allow photos or videos to be taken.
- Most cemeteries only allow entry during the day, and will usually close in the afternoon.
Law also requires families to maintain their family tomb. On November 1, also known as All Saints’ Day, you may witness families gather at the cemetery to honor their loved ones who have passed, and in the days leading up to that, the cemetery will be full of life as people are washing down and cleaning up the tombs. Another interesting fragment to this, is that if the family refuses or doesn’t maintain their tomb, it can be taken over by the city for restorations.
Watch your step when you step out in New Orleans, the city is notorious for uneven roads
While the city and community does a lot to try and preserve their beloved cemeteries, sometimes you can’t help showing your age. Cracks, missing pieces of pavement, and bumpy roads are a common issue with not just cemeteries, but the French Quarter as a whole.
It is important to bring your best and most comfortable walking shoes, and do your best to watch where you walk, as the broken and uneven grounds can make you trip or fall. If there is anyone in your group that needs accessibility accommodations, let your TripShock booking agent know in advance, and they can help find the best cemetery tour for your needs.
A beautiful view Jackson Square in the French Quarter
New Orleans can get very hot in the summer and cold in the winter, making it so important to pack and dress appropriately. Especially during the summer, if there is someone in your party that can’t take the heat, it is recommended to book a morning tour, instead.
Visiting a cemetery in New Orleans should be an essential part of your trip. Not only do you get to experience the history and haunts on a personal level, but it provides a bigger picture and greater understanding of the city itself.
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