St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 stands on the outskirts of the French Quarter. There is no discernible order to this collection of the dead, only haphazard tombs that crumble together, spilled bricks and epitaphs, grass thrusting through walkways that lead nowhere. In just one square block, it is an eternal home to thousands.
Bodies aren’t buried so much as they are entombed in these above-ground chambers. Wall vaults tower overhead as outdoor catacombs for many, stacked one on top of another. The oldest of these are made from stone and brick, some 200 years before, and give the impression that they could turn to dust at any moment. The newer ones, designated for “society,” are cast from marble and reflect the sun indecently.
I have a fondness for the step tombs, the semi-subterranean slabs that have been covered, somewhat loosely in some instances, with brick. They may or may not be among the oldest graves there, but they do seem the easiest to break free from. Not that anyone or thing would, I suppose. Not much seems to break out of that particular cemetery, despite the rumors of spirits and countless ghost-catching guides that tromp through an otherwise peacefully dead zone.
Still. The elevated and illuminated ways of the Quarter are wrought with legends and smoke trails that curl through whispered history. Where one dark corner may only bristle, there is a doorway, or a hallway, that will wail. Such hauntings as they may be take up more room in the Quarter than any of its ordinary residents.
We visit Cemetery No. 1 regularly. Some see New Orleans in shades of purple and yellow, a Cajun stew of wild character. I prefer to see it in paler tones. For this, Cemetery No. 1 suits me. There, the sun-soaked, deteriorating vaults, leaning iron fences, and cracked plates seem to have greater stories to tell.
There are interesting people buried there. Not that you necessarily know immediately or at all, not when so many vaults have no identification or clear markings. Visitors seem to work on instinct when paying respect.
Marie Leveau is reportedly on the grounds. Her sarcophagus-style vault is frequented by those looking for assistance, who believe the energy of her voodoo practice exists still. They’ll knock on the front of her tomb, perform quietly elaborate rituals and leave markings and offerings in hope of cajoling her favor.
In the Quarter, where energy is always ripe, I hesitate to question their actions. At least, not now.
There are others buried in No. 1, other voodoo priests and priestesses without the notoriety of Leveau. Their graves are unmarked by history but found nonetheless by those who look. Wander long enough and you’ll find these graves, too. We did, my guy and I. One in particular stood out among the others, taller than some, with a marred mardi gras mask perched on a spire. Candles, cards, unsmoked cigarettes, and baubles lay in wait at the foot of the vault. It was like any other site for the voodoo believers, yet somehow, to me, different. It was quieter, I think. Less desperate. More … Fulfilled.
I wasn’t inclined to ask for anything from whomever may have been listening. But I left a tribute anyway, an expired hotel room key, smiled, and joined my guy to walk back into the Quarter.
That night, we visited the casino. It’s not unusual for us to win a little in the casino, just enough to keep playing and buy a few rounds of cocktails. That night, we won a lot. An unusual amount of a lot.
Had it happened in any other city, I would have attributed our fortune to luck. In New Orleans, a place where I leave more than just a hotel room key behind, I can’t help but think that maybe, someone, something, found a way to say thanks.
And life, or otherwise, continues.