NEW ORLEANS — The tomb of 18th Century voodoo queen Marie Leveau and graves of other famed artists and musicians have been unscathed in New Orleans’ most famous “city of the dead,” despite fears the flood waters from two hurricanes would destroy above-ground graves and scatter the remains of the long deceased.
Like many other graveyards in the city, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was submerged when the levees and flood walls that protect New Orleans gave way under the pressure from the storm surge caused by Hurricane Katrina in August.
But New Orleans’ above-ground tombs held fast, while traditional graves in outlying areas in flood regions were destroyed, scattering coffins and human remains.
“These cemeteries are truly unique in the world,” said Rob Florence, the author of two books about New Orleans, as he made his first return this week to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest surviving city graveyard which was opened in 1789 when the city was under Spanish rule.
Leveau, the 18th century hairdresser hailed as the matriarch of voodoo, lies in a family tomb in the cemetery that is just outside the famous French Quarter and attracts thousands of tourists each year.
The final resting place for musicians, artists and luminaries from the city’s colorful past, the cemetery was also the site of a famous scene in the film “Easy Rider” when Peter Fonda clambered up a statue of the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society Tomb.
Other famous people laid to rest in the cemetery include jazz legend Isdore Barbarin, whom Louis Armstrong called “Pops,” Benjamin Latrobe, the father of the U.S. architectural profession, and, more recently, Ecuadoran-born painter George Febres.
The cemetery’s architectural style and design borrow heavily from the French and Spanish traditions, Florence said, except that New Orleans, long prone to flooding because of its low lying areas, chose to house the bodies higher in the brick and marble tombs that stand like tiny houses.
A handful of the marble inscription tables were destroyed in the flooding, but damage to the fragile monuments and statues appeared to be very minor, Florence said.
“I’m just delighted to see this. It’s uplifting. I would have thought this cemetery would have taken a beating,” he said.
Church officials were relieved their historic city cemeteries had withstood the hurricane, but in nearby St. Bernard Parish, coffins did float out of graves and some human remains were exposed.
“We’ve gotten some reports and it’s not good,” said Jody Rome, assistant director for the New Orleans’ Archdiocesan Cemeteries.
Hurricane Rita also lifted grave covers in Cameron and scattered coffins in southwestern Louisiana, much of which remains under water.
HIGH AND DRY
Historical accounts are sparse, Florence said, but records show the early settlers along the bends of the Mississippi River near the Gulf Coast buried their dead in low-lying areas, often to disastrous ends.
That prompted the wealthier residents of New Orleans to place their caskets above ground inside the tombs, unlike their European counterparts who built similar monuments, but placed the bodies in the ground.
“They did it so that during events like Hurricane Katrina, the would not have bodies floating,” Florence said.
The lock to the gates of the cemetery had been cut, apparently by the national guard troops who patrol the city, and there were signs that some of the city’s homeless had returned to claim their spots in the empty wall vaults among the dead.
The tomb of the voodoo queen attracts the most attention in the cemetery and visitors had already returned, leaving offerings of champagne, chocolates an even a wicker chair on a faded rug.
Covering the tomb are Xs, written in pen or scratched into the marble using the bricks from deteriorating graves nearby. Those marks are a voodoo sign, but Florence said the Xs were often made by the tour guides to add to the allure of voodoo at that spot.
“The family that owns the (Leveau) tomb doesn’t call it voodoo, they call it vandalism. And the real voodoo practitioners call it desecration,” he said.