Tourists swilled beers, tour guides barked and the tomb of legendary Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau received a final touch-up Thursday as part of a group effort to restore the popular attraction to its original state.
The tomb, which is in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 near Conti and Basin streets, has suffered from a one-two punch of vandalism and decay over the years.
But $10,000 worth of repairs from a local restoration company have left the more than 130-year-old burial chamber looking pristine.
“It has been probably decades since the tomb had seen any restoration work,” said Michelle Stanard Duhon, owner of Bayou Preservation, the company that completed the project. “That’s a lot of long-term deterioration.”
The repair work, funded by the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the nonprofit group Save Our Cemeteries, began in January after someone hopped the cemetery’s fence and slathered the tomb with a coat of Pepto-Bismol pink paint.
The archdiocese, which owns the cemetery, used a pressure washer to remove the latex paint, chipping some of the plaster in the process. According to Save Our Cemeteries, the cleaning may have damaged the tomb further.
Soon afterward, the two groups decided to hire Duhon’s company, which specializes in restoring historic tombs. The archdiocese provided $2,500 while Save Our Cemeteries chipped in $7,500.
Duhon said the restoration took about three months and included masonry repairs, a new roof, coats of plaster stucco and a series of lime washes.
She said her company went to great lengths to preserve any original elements of the structure, even getting the original plaster analyzed in a lab to determine what would be the closest match.
During the work, Duhon and her crew encountered a wide array of personal mementos people had embedded in the tomb’s walls.
“We found human teeth, hair, money, lipstick. We even found a bullet that had been shot into the tomb,” she said.
Preservationists say Laveau’s resting place is one of the most visited in the country, but they’re frustrated by how many visitors feel the need to leave their mark.
Many have scrawled three X’s on the tomb in the belief that doing so will get them a wish granted by Laveau’s spirit.
Amanda Walker, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, said the rumor has been promulgated by blogs and news sites. On Tuesday, Fox News published an article giving credence to the ritual.
Walker said that in addition to defacing the grave, rogue visitors occasionally remove bricks in the tomb to snap a cellphone picture of remains.
“It’s a never-ending battle,” she said.
Sherri Peppo, director of cemeteries for the archdiocese, said the church has recently installed security cameras to try to reduce the graffiti.
The vandalism especially irks Ina Fandrich, a German-born Marie Laveau researcher. Fandrich said the ritual of the X’s most likely began in the 1930s and has no root in Voodoo.
Fandrich described Laveau as a “famous healer” in the 19th century who saved people from yellow fever and had psychic powers. Laveau’s knowledge, she said, was coveted by everyone from the poor to powerful politicians.
According to Fandrich, the appropriate way to cap off a visit to Laveau’s crypt is not with a ritual but with a wish.
“I know people with terminal cancer who have been healed and people who have won the lottery after wishing,” she said.
Fandrich strolled through the cemetery on Friday, quibbling with a videographer about whether he was actually related to Laveau and bemoaning the buildup of lipstick kisses and other scribblings on an aged tomb.
At Laveau’s resting place, it appeared vandals had already struck: three long X’s were scrawled on the side.
“What we need is a permanent guard that watches it 24-7,” Fandrich said.