Below are pictures from our visit to the "City of the Dead," the St. Louis Cemetery #1, located adjacent to the French Quarter. After watching the movie Double Jeopardy some time ago, which has an elaborate chase scene in one such New Orleans cemetery, I have been intrigued by these unique above-ground cemeteries and their historical significance. I thought our impromptu self-guided tour was fun and interesting, even if it did almost make us late for the wedding. After returning from our trip, I found a web site that offered a little more historical perspective on these cemeteries. Below is an explanation of why the tombs are above ground.
New Orleans has always respected the dead, but this isn't the reason the tombs of our departed loved ones are interred above ground. Early settlers in the area struggled with different methods to bury the dead. Burial plots are shallow in New Orleans because the water table is high. Dig a few feet down, and the grave becomes soggy, filling with water. The casket will literally float. You just can't keep a good person down!
The early settlers tried by placing stones in and on top of coffins to weigh them down and keep them underground. Unfortunately, after a rainstorm, the rising water table would literally pop the airtight coffins out of the ground. To this day, unpredictable flooding still lifts an occasional coffin out of the ground in those areas generally considered safe from flooding and above the water table.
Another method tried was to bore holes in the coffins. This method also proved to be unsuitable. Eventually, New Orleans' graves were kept above ground following the Spanish custom of using vaults.
The walls of these cemeteries are made up of economical vaults that are stacked on top of one another. The rich and wealthier families could afford the larger ornate tombs with crypts. Many family tombs look like miniature houses complete with iron fences. The rows of tombs resemble streets. New Orleans burial plots quickly became known as "Cites of the Dead."