Ghost Stories and Tall Tales of the American South

Metairie Cemetery/New Orleans Cemeteries

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Metairie Cemetery and other historic New Orleans cemeteries.

Metairie Cemetery, where Josie Arlington is buried, is an immense, 150-acre graveyard built on the site of an old racetrack at 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd. If you drive into New Orleans off Interstate 10 on the Pontchartrain Expressway, you can’t help but notice it as you cross the Orleans Parish line. An entire day or two could be spent touring the vast network of crypts and monuments, and it’s well worth your time to take a tour when you’re in town.

Josie Arlington Grave

Josie’s grave is still there, but as we mentioned in the story, her remains have been removed to another part of the cemetery. But the cemetery did not remove her remains solely because of the influx of curiosity-seekers. The truth is that, after her death, her family squandered the fortune Josie had earned, and they could no longer afford such a lavish grave. So they sold it to another “occupant,” strangely enough with the same initials as Josie.

Another myth is that of the red light that would shine upon the grave. Many believe that the light was, in fact, a reflection from a nearby streetlight. Depending on who you talk to, this light was either blocked by the cemetery using shrubs and trees, or was removed entirely. But once Josie’s remains were moved and the light was taken away, the ghost sightings stopped.

NEW ORLEANS CEMETERIES

The above ground cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana are as synonymous with the city as jazz, Bourbon Street and gumbo. Tourists flock to these eerie “cities of the dead” and marvel at the towering vaults, the twisting labyrinth of stone pathways, and the cultural variety of monuments and markers. Anne Rice’s novel Interview With the Vampire and the film Easy Rider are but two pieces of popular culture that have used New Orleans cemeteries as their backdrop.

But these cemeteries are also some of the most important historical structures in the United States. Their strange layout and seemingly haphazard construction mirror the unique history of New Orleans itself. A stroll through New Orleans cemeteries is like a stroll back in time.

New Orleans was settled in 1718 on a raised riverbank beside the Mississippi River. The Mississippi would flood annually, depositing sediment it collected on its journey through North America. Over many years, these silt deposits collected on the riverbanks and formed natural levees, or raised embankments of land (“levee” is derived from the French verb “lever,” meaning “raised”). New Orleans was built on top of one of these well-drained levees.

New Orleans Cemetery

But the first residents would soon discover the folly of trying to bury their dead in this raised riverbank. When flood season came, the water table would rise beneath the coffins, pushing them out of the ground, breaking them apart and washing the human remains away – sometimes through the city streets! When the first official cemetery was constructed outside city limits (around present-day St. Peter Street), the Catholic Church built a brick wall around it to stop the problem. But with annual floods and high amounts of rainfall, the cemetery would become a virtual swimming pool of corpses.

The year 1788 was a horrible one for New Orleans, as a massive fire, flood and an epidemic wiped out a large portion of the city. Such a high death toll brought high demand for burial plots, so a second cemetery was constructed outside town. St. Louis Cemetery #1 became the city’s first aboveground burial site (it’s currently the city’s oldest surviving cemetery). This time, the bodies stayed in place during flooding season, and above ground internment soon became the norm.

Land shortage has always been a problem for New Orleans and its cemeteries. Before water pumps drained the surrounding lands at the turn of the twentieth century, New Orleans was an island surrounded by water. This is why the cemeteries have little wasted space, with winding, twisting pathways that intersect at odd angles – much like New Orleans city streets.

Like homes in the older New Orleans neighborhoods, the tombs tend to be long, tall and narrow, and crammed next to one another. With the cultural variety of people buried within, the architecture is unique and varied, with little separation between wealth and race. Black and white, rich and poor are buried next to one another, neighbors in death as they were (and, in certain areas, still are) in their New Orleans communities.

New Orleans Cemetery

This land shortage also brought about the need for quick reuse of burial vaults and graves. Many family vaults in the old New Orleans cemeteries contain the remains of several generations. With high temperatures and 100 percent humidity (not to mention hordes of insects), bodies decompose very quickly in New Orleans. So its citizens have traditionally followed a strict “year and a day” policy, where bodies are given a year and a day to decompose before their remains are removed from their coffins and pushed to the back to make room for another body. The coffins are then thrown away in public dumpsters – a startling sight for many tourists!

As gruesome as this procedure may sound to some people, it’s a tradition that continues in New Orleans to this day, despite the miles of dry land that are now available for below ground burial. New Orleans cemeteries are not only “cities of the dead,” but also cities of the living – deeply spiritual places where families, neighbors and cultures share close bonds. This is no more evident than during All Saints Day, the Catholic feast day dedicated to the deceased which has been described as “Mardi Gras for the dead.”

Visitors to New Orleans cemeteries will find them not only to be places of sadness, but also of wondrous architecture, deep cultural tradition and pride, and an overwhelming sense of peace. As with other historical places, these cemeteries are threatened with deterioration.

Learn more about New Orleans cemeteries with this definitive book, found in our Bookshop!

To learn more about Metairie Cemetery, visit the following sites:

The New Orleans Way of Death
These guys thought they saw another ghost in Metairie Cemetery.


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One Response to “Metairie Cemetery/New Orleans Cemeteries”


BILLYE HANNA:

I was interested to see if owners of above ground vaults, ever sell shares of the vault. or if strangers go in together and buy one? for it is just my husband and I and we do not have families to continue being buiried there. thankyou, billye

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