A historic cemetery that may have begun the New Orleans tradition of above-ground crypts will soon be off-limits to tourists wandering about on their own because of tomb vandalism, the Catholic archdiocese that owns the property has announced.
Starting in March, entry to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and its labyrinth of mausoleums will be restricted to relatives of the dead buried there, visiting scholars and those with a tour guide registered with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
The new policy is necessary to protect the tombs, archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said. “We’ve had unlicensed tour guides and others handing out markers and instructions on how to mark up various tombs,” she said in releasing the new policy Monday.
One of the most famous tombs is believed to hold the remains of 19th-century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. In 2013, Laveau’s tomb was covered from one end to the other with pink latex paint. But the problems extend beyond her tomb.
“We also have people leaving trash in the cemetery, littering, setting up camp,” McDonald said in an interview.
Established in 1789, the cemetery — surrounded by 6½-foot-high brick walls — is located on Basin Street just outside the French Quarter and is the oldest remaining graveyard in the city. Early burials in St. Louis No. 1 are thought to have been below ground or in low tombs, according to the website for a nonprofit group, Save Our Cemeteries. Concrete and marble burial vaults, experts believe, were built atop those earlier graves to accommodate later burials.
St. Louis No. 1 covers an entire city block with “a maze of tombs and aisles,” the organization notes, including “oven vaults” for those unable to afford the stand-alone mausoleums for affluent members of various societies.
Among the thousands buried in St. Louis No. 1 are Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that segregation laws were constitutional, and world chess champion Paul Morphy.
Sherri Peppo, director of the archdiocesan cemeteries office, said that several tombs have been broken into and vandalized in the past year. Even security cameras have been stolen.
“We needed to take some steps to both protect the sacred nature of the cemetery and preserve the history that is there as well,” Peppo said.
Complicating matters, a local legend has it that Laveau will grant a wish for someone who makes three X’s on the tomb believed to be hers, knocks on the tomb and shouts the wish.
“I can tell you what it is in three words: graffiti, vandalism and desecration,” guide Renee Dodge, of Haunted History Tours, told a dozen people with a tour group visiting Tuesday afternoon.
Emily Ford, a restoration consultant for Save Our Cemeteries, used cotton swabs and assorted liquids Tuesday to carefully wipe X’s off the lowest of the tomb’s three marble name plates. Some were made with eye shadow, others in crayon, waxy lip balm or ink.
Pointing to a set of X’s scraped on the marble, she said: “I can’t do anything about that.”
Registration for tour guides will begin in February, the archdiocese said. Tour companies and independent guides must show insurance and a city license. Guides who occasionally bring tours to the cemetery can pay $40 for a one-time pass; those giving regular tours must pay $4,500 to $5,400 a year.
Both the new policy and fees are reasonable, said Amanda Walker, director of Save Our Cemeteries, which gives tours of St. Louis cemeteries 1 and 2 and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 to raise money for restoration.
She noted that most cemetery tours are being conducted by guides for “pure profit.”
“None of the money goes to the cemetery,” she added.
McDonald said relatives of those buried in the cemetery must contact the archdiocese to make arrangements — likewise for scholars and those conducting genealogical research.
Though the new fees are expected to pay to staff the cemetery during business hours and take unspecified security measures, some lament the change.
Jasmine Schumaker, a recent transplant to suburban New Orleans from Santa Cruz, California, visited Tuesday with an offering of fruit and rum for Laveau’s tomb.
She said Laveau’s tomb was completely covered in X’s when she visited the city 10 years ago, but the new restrictions will be a shame.
“I’m really sorry about the vandalism, but this is such an essential part of New Orleans culture,” she said.
Perhaps, she suggested, people could be told to make X’s on pieces of paper and leave those in front of the tomb.