Cemetery tourists return to Big Easy

NEW ORLEANS / / The little band of cemetery tourists couldn't resist the delicate, ghoulish question: After Hurricane Katrina, did any of the bodies float?

It was a humid, gray autumn day in New Orleans, almost cool, and our tour group had meandered through the French Quarter, past the "Make Levees Not War" banners, across alcoholically aromatic Bourbon Street, and finally over to Basin Street and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.


"You'd have been ankle deep in water here," our guide had said, pointing to the waterline, a shadowy gray stripe on the white paint along a cemetery wall.

Waterlines are everywhere in New Orleans, as if Katrina were a graffiti artist who raged around the city indelibly tagging walls, houses, storefronts and, in the city's famous cemeteries, the tombs that sit in rag-tag rows like tiny subdivisions.


But, no, said our guide, Mary LaCoste, a 73-year-old native New Orleanian. Although the cemeteries flooded, the bodies and the caskets stayed put, at least within the city's boundaries.

"I did take some New York firemen on a tour," she said. "They'd been assigned to go into the swamps to locate bodies from the cemeteries in St. Bernard Parish."

She didn't linger on that thought. Better to talk about the ancient dead than these recent losses, this fresh grief.

For centuries, New Orleanians have been notoriously skilled at repackaging death and disaster as good stories, and a proper tourist to-do list has always included a stroll through its "cities of the dead."

The city has 42 historic aboveground cemeteries, and several organizations offer walking tours in two:

St. Louis No. 1, opened in 1789, and Lafayette No. 1, in the Garden District, in 1833.

"Why above ground?" asked my pre-Katrina Frommer's guidebook, in typical jaunty New Orleans style. "Well, it rains in New Orleans. A lot. And then it floods. Soon after the city was settled, it became apparent that Uncle Etienne had an unpleasant habit of bobbing back to the surface."

In many ways, a cemetery tour these days is no different from the one you might have taken in that jocular pre-Katrina time. You'll still be escorted through New Orleans' past and introduced to almost everybody who was anybody since the 18th century.


Here, said LaCoste, is the tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

Touch the tomb, she urged us. Make a wish and turn three times. And remember which way you turned, in case you want to take your wish back. I turned left.

And here, she said, pointing to the next tomb over, is Ernest Morial, the city's first Creole mayor.

"Don't make a wish on his tomb," she said. "Politicians don't keep their promises."

Up and down the narrow paths we went, between tombs of brick, stucco and marble.

She led us past the giant ethnic tombs, where the deceased of the same descent cohabit for eternity. The Portuguese over there. The Italians over here.


During the filming of Easy Rider, she noted, Peter Fonda climbed the Italian tomb and sat up top with the marble statue, weeping.

"That cold statue," LaCoste said, "represented his mother."

These are timeless tales, but the cemetery tour, like everything in New Orleans now, is also about Katrina, the demon who broke the levees of Lake Pontchartrain and left the city drowning.

From St. Louis No. 1, you can gaze just across the cemetery wall and see mid-rises of red brick. They belong to the public housing complex built on what was once the red-light district of Storyville. It's rumored that some people, possibly from those buildings, lived in empty tomb vaults after the storm.

"They're now mostly shuttered," LaCoste said, "which means poor people have lost those places to come home to."

And then there's the big white tomb of the musical Barbarin family, which a few years ago dedicated several vaults for indigent musicians. A big blue note once graced the roof, but Katrina blew the note away, and its stained glass shattered.


Nearby stands a towering palm tree. It has been long dead but seems even more dead since Katrina sheared off its limp fronds, and drove away the resident parakeets.

"Another one of those unsung tragedies," said LaCoste, sighing and patting the tree trunk.

In cemeteries all over the city, wind toppled marble markers, damaged tomb roofs, knocked down trees and blew debris into walkways. Floodwater squatted in the cemeteries long enough to rust the ironwork.

Nevertheless, Katrina wasn't all bad for the cities of the dead. For years, they've been neglected, crumbling, littered with debris and weeds. By exposing the cemeteries to the world, the storm got people interested.

After Katrina, a Czech conservation group e-mailed Louise Saenz, director of Save Our Cemeteries, a New Orleans tour and conservation organization: Could they help?

The Czechs came to town and tested ways to clean the water lines from tombs to erase the stains from iron that had rusted onto marble. They showed how to fix broken funerary statues.


Save Our Cemeteries also received a couple of repair grants.

"The cemeteries are in good order," says Saenz. "The guides are enthusiastic. We're just waiting on our visitors to come back."

And the visitors are coming back. Not enough, but on the day I took a tour, we passed three other cemetery tour groups.

In one aisle of tombs, we turned the corner and LaCoste, who works for New Orleans Spirit Tours, spotted a guide for Haunted History tours.

"How you doing sweetheart?" she exclaimed. They hugged.

"Haven't seen you," she said. She noted that he wasn't wearing his usual mortician's tour guide costume, with the tall black hat.


He said he'd just come back to town.

"It's been 13 months," he said. "Thirteen months."

They commiserated briefly, about all the New Orleanians who had left after the flood, the ones who were only now returning, the ones who never would.

And when Lacoste led us cheerfully off, I glimpsed a ghost out of the corner of my eye. The ghost's name was Katrina, and she'll haunt this city for a long time.

Mary Schmich writes for the Chicago Tribune.



For safety reasons, it's generally not recommended that you visit the cemeteries on your own. Here are a couple of tours to consider.

New Orleans Spirit Tours -- 504-314-0806, 866-369-1224 or The two-hour cemetery-and-voodoo tour begins with a brief stroll through the French Quarter to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and usually ends with a stroll back to the Quarter to visit a voodoo priestess. $18 adults, $9 children.

Save Our Cemeteries Inc. -- 504-525-3377, 888-721-7493 or One-hour walking tours of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1.