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Of all Mid-City's charms, one of the most fascinating is the prolific number of cemeteries, and the haunting beauty of these "cities of the dead." A tour de force for the imagination, these graves hold the final resting places of famous musicians, Storyville madams, voodoo practitioners, politicians, and pirates.
The historical development of these aboveground cemeteries emerges from two main points. New Orleans, most of which lies below sea level, has a high water table, which caused (and continues to cause, in some circumstances) buried coffins to pop out of the ground when a heavy rain occurred. Raised graves and vaulted tombs were also an old tradition among the French and Spanish.
Mid-City cemeteries are some of the safest and most-trafficked in the city. Save Our Cemeteries, Inc. (504/525-3377 www.saveourcemeteries.org) is a great source for historical knowledge, safety info, and tours.
Most vaults or plots are infused with funerary symbolism, revealing a secret language between the living and dead. An anchor stands for hope, the broken column represents life cut short, and the broken flower symbolizes a life terminated. Sculpted ivy is a symbol of enduring friendship. Clasped hands stand for unity and love, even after death. For more, visit www.nolacemeteries.com.
Cypress Grove Cemetery. This expansive and still-used cemetery was originally founded by the Fireman's Charitable and Benevolent Association in 1840. Over time, as the cemetery expanded, other societies and individuals joined the volunteer firemen in building impressive monuments. Leading architects and craftsmen were called upon to design and build tombs commemorating the lives of many of New Orleans's most prominent citizens. Crafted in marble, granite, and cast iron, tombs at Cypress Grove are among the nation's leading examples of memorial architecture. Of note is the Chinese Soon On Tong Association's tomb that holds a grate in front so that visitors can burn prayers in it. 120 City Park Ave., Mid-City, New Orleans, LA, 70119. Daily 8–5.
Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery. The largest cemetery in the metropolitan area, known to locals simply as Metairie Cemetery, is the final resting place of nine Louisiana governors, seven New Orleans mayors, three Confederate generals, and musician Louis Prima. Many of New Orleans's noted families are also interred here in elaborate monuments ranging from Gothic crypts to Romanesque mausoleums to Egyptian pyramids. The arrangement of tombs reflects the cemetery's former life as a horse-racing track, with the tombs arranged around the perimeter and interior. 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., Mid-City, New Orleans, LA, 70124. www.lakelawnmetairie.com. Daily 8–5.
Odd Fellows Rest. The secretive Independent Order of Odd Fellows association founded this cemetery in 1849. Built to house the remains of those pushed to the fringes of 1800s New Orleans society—often African-Americans, immigrants, and victims of yellow fever plagues—the cemetery is famous for its "verbally expressive" tributes. Poetic passages in numerous languages grace the graves and monuments. "In the midst of life, we are in death," one tomb declares. While the 1849 dedication ceremony was lavish—a splendid ceremony and a grand procession parade led by two circus bandwagons, one pulled by 16 horses—the local chapter of the Order of Odd Fellows has long since disappeared, and the cemetery shows signs of neglect and vandalism. 5055 Canal St., Mid-City, New Orleans, LA, 70119. Daily 8–5.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. One block from the entrance to City Park, at the end of Esplanade Avenue, this cemetery, established in 1854, was built on an old leper colony. Governor Galvez exiled the lepers to this area of high ground along Bayou St. John, but during the yellow fever outbreak of 1853 they were removed yet again to make room for the dead. Storyville photographer E. J. Bellocq lies here, and the cemetery is notable now for its neat rows of elaborate aboveground crypts, mausoleums, and carved stone angels soaring overhead. 3428 Esplanade Ave., Bayou St. John, New Orleans, LA, 70119. Mon.–Sat. 9–3, Sun. 9–noon.
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