Can I share a secret with you? New Orleans scares me.
It’s not just the hurricanes and the street hustlers and the heat-that-takes-my-breath-away. Sometimes it’s the beads and trinkets that are thrown-like-grenades from French Quarter balconies. Sometimes it’s the manic crowds that follow Mardi Gras parades. But always, it’s the cemeteries that scare me. Even when I’m in a group of people. Even in the daylight.
Unlike other cemeteries in the south, the dead of old New Orleans are buried above ground. And they’re buried on top of each other, so that in the oldest cemeteries—like the Saint Louis and Girod Cemeteries—the vaults are stacked high and wide. Walking around the cemeteries is like walking around a city of the dead.
I’m not afraid of the spirits of the dead; no, I actually find the spirits comforting. What creeps me out is that there are so many places to hide in these cemeteries. There are so many tall crypts and so many dark shadows to conceal real flesh-and-blood evil. Not to mention the solid brick walls that surround most of the oldest cemeteries. It just feels like once you’re inside these walls, no one can see you, no one can hear you, no one save you.
This October, as the Paper Lantern Writers consider all Things that Go Bump in the Night, how about we take a short tour—via vintage postcards—of some of New Orleans’ oldest and bumpiest cemeteries. I promise that it won’t be too scary.
Let’s start in the old St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, opened for burials in 1789.
FUN FACT: The earliest interments at St. Louis (Catholic) Cemetery were actually in the ground. The first above-ground tombs appeared around 1804.
This postcard—like all of the postcards here—shows the cemetery as it appeared in the early 1900’s
The Girod Street Cemetery was opened in 1822 for the Protestant citizens of New Orleans.
Many of the dead were buried in large, high wall vaults. Almost like today’s apartment buildings.
Greenwood Cemetery was opened in 1852 and features a number of impressive tombs and stunning monuments.
I like Greenwood so much that I buried one of my favorite characters there.
Metairie Cemetery—my favorite NOLA cemetery—was initially built as a racetrack in 1838.
The track was converted to a cemetery in 1872 and the race course shape was retained.
I buried another one of my favorite characters at Metairie Cemetery, in a lane of fine tombs very similar to the ones shown in the first postcard.
The last cemetery on our tour today is St. Roch’s, opened in 1874 and almost 150 years later, still welcoming burials.
Okay…I must admit that these beautiful colorized postcards of the early 20th century don’t make the cemeteries of New Orleans look all that scary.
But try—on the next dark night in New Orleans, after you’ve broken into the cemetery—just try to walk past a row of crumbled tombs in St. Louis No. 1 or the towering wall vaults of Girod or a grove of willows at Metairie.
Try not to think about what might be lurking behind that decrepid crypt you’re facing, or hanging from that weeping tree above you, or squirming in those tall weeds against the wall, ready to bump against you in the night.
Then tell me that New Orleans cemeteries don’t scare you too.
Ana Brazil writes historical crime fiction celebrating bodacious American heroines. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers.
Ana’s award-winning historical mystery FANNY NEWCOMB & THE IRISH CHANNEL RIPPER is set in Gilded Age New Orleans. Her upcoming October 17 2023 release is THE RED-HOT BLUES CHANTEUSE, a Viola Vermillion Vaudeville mystery set in 1919 San Francisco.