Although 28 people managed to cram into a Mini Cooper a few years ago to set a new Guinness World Record, I bet even Guinness would be astonished at how many people New Orleans families manage to fit inside a single mausoleum in one of our famous above ground cemeteries.
If you’ve ever traipsed about a cemetery and read the inscriptions on the tablets, you may have wondered how it’s possible for so many family members to keep each other company in eternal slumber. And keep this in mind: Not all those interred in a tomb always have their name inscribed on the tablet. There may be even more than it appears.
Such is the case at one of New Orleans’ most storied tombs, that of Marie Laveau in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery on Basin Street. But Laveau biographer Carolyn Morrow Long feels she has a handle on how many are in the tomb of the “Madame Widow Paris,” as the revered Voudou practitioner was known after the death of her husband Jacques Paris around 1925.
“There are 84 in the tomb,” Long stated definitively. “There are 25 family members, seven family friends, and six close neighbors. As for the others….”
Long, a resident of Washington, D. C., is in town for a book signing today at the 1850 House state museum from 2-4 p.m. A few days earlier, she presented her research into Marie Laveau’s tomb at an event sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Long’s 2007 biography “A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau” is just one of the writer’s New Orleans-centric works. More recently, she wrote a biography of the infamous Delphine Lalaurie, titled “Madame Lalaurie: Mistress of the Haunted House,” which is now being released in soft cover. And the story she wrote for Cultural Vistas Magazine, “The Cracker Jack: A Hoodoo Drugstore in the Cradle of Jazz,” won first place in the feature writing category from the Press Club of New Orleans this year.
Unlike the wretched Lalaurie woman, known for torturing her slaves, Long described Laveau as extremely caring and charitable. She ministered to the sick. She comforted prisoners on death row. She sponsored an orphan. She was a devout Catholic. So when someone died, she was all too willing to either lease space in her family tomb (likely built in the 1830s) or lend a spot to someone awaiting placement elsewhere.
“Not every person interred in the tomb was an adult when they died,” Long explained. “There are a number of babies.”
More remarkable than the number of individuals that Long has identified as having been interred in the tomb is the process she used to establish that number.
“I got permission from the archdiocese to look through the cemetery archives. Starting in late 1859, they included detailed information which includes name, color, age, cause of death, where they died, the attending physician, and where they were buried. I went page by page,” she said. “After 1919, there was much less information and accounts were sketchy.”
Despite the meticulous research, Long says there are still questions she can’t answer. One is why a wall vault in St. Louis No. 2 seems to have attracted the same kind of attention as the “Famille Paris” tomb in St. Louis No. 1.
“Marie did own a wall vault in St. Louis No. 1 on the Basin Street side, but there is no record whatever of her owning one in St. Louis No. 2 or of her remains having been moved there. There is always a notation in the archives when that happens,” Long explained. “If her remains were moved, it was done secretly, without notifying the archdiocese.”
The second unanswered question has to do with the origin of the tradition of marking the tomb with a trio of X’s.
“Because of Marie’s abiding faith and close relationship with the Catholic church, I wonder if those marks weren’t originally simple crosses that were turned on their sides over time?” she said.
The X’s were damaging enough to the fragile brick tomb coated in lime wash, but after a vandal coated the entire tomb in pink latex paint, action was taken to stop the ritual. The archdiocese partnered with Save Our Cemeteries to restore the tomb, a $10,000 undertaking. Then, to ensure the tomb’s preservation for the future, the archdiocese closed the cemetery to the public, except for licensed tour guides and their charges.
So, how many people can fit inside an empty tomb? The answer is one: After one, it isn’t empty any more.