New Orleans Cemetery Guide
This post is a practical guide to visiting cemeteries in New Orleans, with tips on which to choose as well as explanations of what you will see. There are over 40 cemeteries in New Orleans, each with its own charm and personality. One, St. Louis Cemetery #1, allows entry only licensed tour companies, like us, Free Tours by Foot.
New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 as a tiny outpost situated in a bend in the Mississippi River and surrounded by cypress swamps. Usually, the early settlers would bury people in the highest ground in the area, the levee. However, this was problematic in a city that still tended to flood every few years. Bodies or caskets would be revealed when the water came and washed away the soil around them. In 1722, an official cemetery, the St. Peter Cemetery, was built on the outskirts of the tiny village. The dead were buried underground, but problems associated with our high water table and flooding continued. In 1788, a new cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery (today’s St. Louis #1) was built, St. Peter Cemetery was deconsecrated, and the lots sold for building residences. The bodies of the dead buried in the old cemetery remained, and are occasionally unearthed during renovations on that block. Around 1800, New Orleans began the current custom of above ground interment, inspired by the cemeteries in European cities. This custom, so practical in New Orleans, soon became standard practice and continues today.
Types of Tombs and Interment Processes
The tombs in the cemeteries of New Orleans are works of art, and as such, there is no limit to the styles one will find. However, there are four most common types: family tombs, society tombs, wall vaults, and coping tombs.
These are the most common type of tomb. They usually feature 2-3 chambers stacked upon each other but can hold 40-50 deceased family members. When all of the chambers are occupied and a new corpse needs to move in, the one that has been in the longest is taken out. The remains are bagged, labeled, and placed in a below-ground box called a caveau. The new occupant is put in the chamber, the chamber opening is bricked up, and the closure tablet is screwed in place. This process is repeated every time the tomb is needed.
These are large tombs that can hold the remains of hundreds of dead. They belong to religious orders, workers unions, immigrant groups, or charitable organizations. In life, members paid dues to the society, and in death were allowed to be buried in the society tomb. They range from simple rows of tombs to elaborate structures such as Jefferson Fire Company #22 (image below).
Often, the walls of the cemeteries are made of burial chambers. These are sometimes called “oven vaults” because they resemble old-style ovens. Wall vaults are a less expensive alternative to building a family tomb, but only 6-8 occupants can fit inside. Wall vaults line the inside of exterior cemetery walls.
These are used when, for religious or personal reasons, the deceased wished to be buried in the earth but died in New Orleans. A wall is built which reaches three feet underground and 2-3 feet above ground level. The casket is placed within the wall, and then the area around it is filled in with soil.
Now that you know a little about New Orleans cemeteries, you will want to visit one. But which one? In nearly every neighborhood you’re likely to visit, there is a cemetery worth seeing. Here are a few of our favorites:
A – St. Louis Cemetery #1 (edge of French Quarter): (map)
The oldest extant cemetery in New Orleans, it is currently undergoing more restoration than ever before. This is due to the fact that in March 2015, the Archdiocese of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the general public. Now, you can only see the cemetery if you are on the list of families who own tombs, or if you are with a permitted tour guide (our pay-what-you-wish St. Louis Cemetery Tour runs daily).
Notable personalities resting here include Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans and Homer Plessy of the landmark civil rights case Plessy v. Ferguson. You will also find the future tomb of Nicolas Cage, the Hollywood actor. After Easy Rider was filmed here in 1969, the Archdiocese forbade any commercial filming in any Catholic cemeteries in the city. While you can’t visit the cemetery on your own, we do have a short self-guided tour to show you what is inside.
Here is a video of St. Louis Cemetery #1 shot from a drone
B – Lafayette Cemetery #1 (Garden District): 1416-1498 Washington Ave, New Orleans (map)
A city-owned cemetery established in 1832 in the heart of the district famed for its enormous antebellum mansions and lovely fenced yards, this cemetery is one of the most visited in the city. It is open to the public. It is a favorite filming spot, having been seen in Interview With a Vampire, Double Jeopardy, NCIS: New Orleans, American Horror Story, Dracula 2000, The Originals, and numerous music videos.
- Learn more about the cemetery with our self-guided tour.
- Our pay-what-you-wish guided tour of the Garden District visits the cemetery daily.
C – St. Louis Cemetery #3 (City Park/Bayou St. John): (map)
The long, neat cemetery at the end of Esplanade Avenue is a favorite stop for bus tours of New Orleans. Built on the site of a former leper colony, this cemetery sits on a natural high ridge along Bayou St. John and is a great place to get photographs of angel statues. If you walk all the way to the end on the cemetery, you will find a three-story mausoleum and you will be rewarded with an impressive view of the neighborhood if you climb to the top floor balcony.
- Consider taking our self-guided tour of Esplanade Avenue and Bayou St. John neighborhoods with you.
D – Metairie Cemetery (Old Metairie, though actually, it is in New Orleans): (map)
A stunning 65-acre cemetery built on a former horse-racing track. When it was dedicated in 1872, the trend in cemeteries in the Eastern United States was toward rural memorial parks with landscaped grounds, lakes, and pathways. This aesthetic, combined with New Orleans flair for ornamented, above-ground tombs, creates a cemetery that one can explore all day. Several Civil War generals, New Orleans mayors, Louisiana governors, artists, and writers rest in this cemetery, as well as Al Copeland, the founder of Popeyes Fried Chicken and famed musician Louis Prima, whose epitaph is inscribed with the lyrics of one of his most famous songs, “Just a Gigolo”. Many people visit the Morales tomb, which was originally built for famed Storyville madam Josie Arlington and features a young girl knocking at the door of the tomb.
E – Canal Street Cemeteries (Mid-City):
These include Cypress Grove, Greenwood, Odd Fellows Rest, and Old Charity Hospital/Katrina Memorial Cemetery. Easily reached by the red Canal Street Streetcar (the one that reads “cemeteries” on the front), they are all open to the public except Odd Fellows Rest, which is currently undergoing restoration.
Old Charity Hospital Cemetery was established in 1848 as a burial place for unidentified people. Therefore, there are no markers at all in this cemetery. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 83 victims of the storm and its aftermath remained unidentified and were interred here.
Cypress Grove contains several interesting tombs, including the Soon on Tong tomb, erected in 1904 as a temporary resting place for Chinese people who died in New Orleans, before their remains were shipped to China.
Greenwood, one of the city’s largest cemeteries at 150 acres, boasts at its entrance the impressive Elks tomb and Firemen’s Monument. You will also see many cast iron tombs in Greenwood.
There are a few things you may want to bear in mind before you set out on your adventure into the cemeteries of New Orleans:
The cemeteries are still active. All of the cemeteries mentioned in this guide are still active cemeteries. Families are still burying their dead regularly. If you see a funeral procession or workers preparing a tomb, respectfully stay away from that area and do not take photographs of the process.
Marking tombs is vandalism. There are tombs in some of the older cemeteries that have been marked, usually with three x’s. Some people believe that this is a voodoo tradition and that the person interred within will grant your wish if you make the x’s and say some magic words. Unless your wish is to pay a fine for destruction of property, this probably is not true. Never make a mark on a tomb. It is disrespectful and illegal.
The cemeteries in this guide are safe; some others are not. New Orleans is a city with some neighborhoods that are less safe than others. All of the cemeteries we are recommending are considered safe, but always use common sense and be aware of your surroundings.
Leave nothing but footprints. Please do not litter in the cemeteries. The maintenance workers work hard to keep these sacred places accessible and as pleasant as possible to everyone.
Take LOTS of pictures. Photography is allowed in all the cemeteries and everyone loves to see pictures of these special places. Take close-ups of statues’ faces, inscriptions, people’s names. Get lots of different angles. These will become treasured memories of your excursion into one of New Orleans’ most unique traditions.
Just about every company offers some type of cemetery tour. We at Free Tours by Foot offer daily tours of both St. Louis Cemetery #1 and Lafayette Cemetery #1. And don’t just take our word for it, that we offer the best tours at the best value (you pay whatever you like or can afford), see what people have said in the past on TripAdvisor (we’re #1), on Yelp and Google. We also offer a self-guided tour of Lafayette Cemetery that is completely free.
Save Our Cemeteries
Save Our Cemeteries is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to cemetery preservation in New Orleans. They are the only tour organization in New Orleans solely dedicated to cemeteries. They are also the only company to regularly offer tours that include St. Louis Cemetery #2, a slightly younger neighbor of St. Louis #1, itself full of lesser-known but fascinating local history. Sporadically, they’ll offer tours of Metairie Cemetery, one of the largest and most ostentatious in the city. Their tours in Lafayette Cemetery #1, unlike those offered by most companies, cover only the cemetery – not the surrounding neighborhood.
Reviews: Save Our Cemeteries is consistently rated 4.5 stars across TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Google. Reviewers offer high praise for the organization’s mission and for the guides’ knowledge. The occasional negative review tends to concern presentation – some from guests who did not find the storytelling engaging, some from guests who came hoping for stories about ghosts, voodoo, or other subjects the company chooses not to include.
Reservations: Reservations are not required, however, recommended.
Schedule and Pricing: Prices listed below are for online reservations; walk-up prices, when space is available, are an additional $5/person. A portion of every ticket price is dedicated to the organization’s work of cemetery preservation and restoration. Tours are advertised as lasting 90 minutes, possibly extending to as much as two hours.
- St. Louis Cemetery #1: 10:00 am daily, 11:30 am and 1:00 pm Monday-Saturday ($20/person)
- Lafayette Cemetery #10:30 am daily ($15/person)
- St. Louis Cemetery #1 and #2 Combo: 12:30 pm Friday, Saturday, and Monday, as well as the second and fourth Wednesday of every month ($20/person)
- St. Louis Cemetery #2: 10:00am fourth Sunday of every month and second and fourth Monday of every month ($20/person)
TOMBS BY TWILIGHT (evening tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1): Fourth Saturday of every month (time varies between 6:00 pm and 7:00 pm depending on sunset) ($45/person, including a drink and appetizer at starting location)
Metairie Cemetery: Variable, a couple of times per year.
Witches Brew Tours
Witches Brew offers a variety of tour packages that encompass ghost, voodoo and historic tours. Their tour of St Louis Cemetery 1 is a unique haunted ghost tour that takes participants through the eerie graveyard that pits its dead above ground. While you walk along the gaudy headstones your tour guide will share with you the historical prominence of the architecture and immerse you in the spooky legends that define this almost 230-year-old burial ground.
Reviews: Witches Brew sports a 4 ½ star rating on both TripAdvisor and Yelp. Reviews for their walking tour of St. Louis Cemetery 1 are extremely positive. Users report the tour as unique and entertaining. The guides are highly praised for their ability to manage the sometimes larger group sizes and engage them in thrilling tales about the haunting graveyard. It is recommended to book an early tour as the weather is more comfortable and the group sizes smaller. This tour is PG rated with many reviews coming from both families and couples.
3-in-1 Cemetery, Voodoo, French Quarter Walking Tour
This package is a combination of St Louis Cemetery 1, the French Quarter and Armstrong Park. Discover the famed tombs of Civil Rights activist, governors, and voodoo tombs including that of the voodoo queen- Marie Laveau. You’ll learn a great deal about New Orleans customs and architecture as well as uncover the history behind the Congo Square.
Reservations: REQUIRED. Book online
When: Monday – Saturday @ 9am, 11am, and 1:30pm and Sundays @ 9am and 11am
Duration: 2 hours
Cost: $25/Adults, $20/Seniors, Military, Students, $12/Children (6 – 12)
This ultimate combo combines one of the company’s haunted tours with a cemetery tour. You’ll begin with an introduction to New Orleans architecture, visiting different buildings that define the unique city. Your next visit will be St. Louis Cemetery 1 where you’ll uncover some of the most prominent resting places in New Orleans. The excursion concludes with a night walking tour of the French Quarter. Your guide will engage you with some of the darkest histories of the city including vampires, ghost, murder, and true crimes.
Reservations: REQUIRED. Book online.
When: Cemetery tour Monday – Saturday @ 9 am, 11 am, and 1:30 pm and Sundays @ 9am and 11am
Haunted tour Daily @ 5 pm and 8 pm
Duration: Approximately 4 hours
Cost: $35/per person ($15 in savings)