After driving through miles of the mystical mushiness of Louisiana swampland, we arrived in New Orleans. Immediately I felt a thick miasma of ghosts seeping in the car. I was shrill at the sight of decrepit old houses on stilts, cracking paint jobs, porches smattered with grotesque furniture and scary plants. The other occupant of the car didn’t share my enthusiasm/horror. He was just like, “I don’t see any ghosts.” Pfffffft.
The next day, I made a bee-line for St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest and most well-known above ground cemetery in New Orleans. I was there primarily to seek Marie Laveau’s tomb. Since getting back from New Orleans, I’ve been gassing on about Marie Laveau’s grave almost incessantly, and to my distress, almost no one know’s who I’m talking about. Come the fuck ON, people. If you don’t know who the queen of voodoo is, you won’t spot her when she’s coming to get you.
Modern Voodoo hopefuls still come to her grave to leave trinkets, meant to tempt her spirit to grant the visitor’s wish. Among the items left, I spotted cosmetics (for beauty?), cigars (wealth? machismo?) and a dainty bottle of ketchup.
When making a request of the great Laveau, supplicants draw three x’s on her tomb, to the chagrin of cemetery preservationists. If the wish comes true, the happy voodoo child returns to the tomb to circle their marks. Tour guides cautioned potential vandals in the crowd that the idea of x’s accompanying prayers to Laveau is unrelated to voodoo; merely a cheesy, touristy practice begun in the 1950s.
Laveau’s wasn’t the only decorated grave. I couldn’t read the names on the few other festooned tombs, so I wasn’t able to vet the competition. Later a tour guide informed us that Laveau was the pop-star of the 19th century voodoo world – pretty, well-known, marketable – but far from the most revered voodoo priestess of her day.
Just as I was getting ready to leave the cemetery, a tour guide with an uneven beard and a strange set of teeth asked me if I wanted a tour. Could he be one of those rogue tour guides you hear so much about? His walking stick had a voodoo doll tied to the handle. Credentials checked out.
Nathan spoke in well-rehearsed patter of all tour guides, his familiarity with the material making him speak a little too quickly for me to understand everything. When we were in the Protestant, more sparsely occupied section of the cemetery, he introduced the grave of a prominent, eccentric member of 19th century New Orleans society: “This man, you’d see him one day, he’d be dressed up like a duke. Another day, he’d be a duchess. If you ask me, he didn’t have a full tank of sugar, but that’s just my opinion. Comme ci comme ça.” At least, that’s what I heard.
Our tour guide pointed at the retreating figure of a man down a row of tombs, thumbing him as one of the rogues I had been warned about. Some of the graves, like the one in the bottom right of the picture below, have been damaged to the point they no longer offer complete protection to their interred remains. Nathan told us this particular man would stick a camera, flash turned on, into one of the decrepit graves, taking ghoulish pictures of skeletons for the creepiest tourists.
Not too far from Marie Laveau, this tacky pyramid awaits the remains of Nicholas Cage. Cage bought a spot in St. Louis No. 1 after he bought the Lalaurie House and subsequently fell under its curse, causing him to lose all his money and star in unspeakably stupid movies. I’ll cover the Lalaurie House in my next post, but suffice it to say that although the sins of the Lalauries were many, it’s unfair to pin The Wicker Man* on those who aren’t undead enough to defend themselves.
The musician’s grave (the largest structure in the picture below), like many of the structures in St. Louis No 1, is a filing cabinet of death, with row upon row of notable musicians stacked on top of one another. The bottom row has partially sunk into the ground, a by-product of the rising sea-level.
When I arrived at the end of the tour, the gate was locked. Nathan summoned a groundskeeper, an affable man in a green jumpsuit. “Are you Molly? People are looking for you.”
I didn’t get a strong a whiff of the paranormal as I had anticipated. But I’m glad I saw Marie Laveau’s grave when I did, because just a few days after our visit, some rascal painted the tomb pink. Even worse news: the paint is latex, which traps air, and brings further ruination to the already weather-beaten structure. And, Uh-Oh: Recently, the Archdiocese in charge of cemetery maintenance approved a plan to power-wash the paint off the tomb, a move that has restoration experts everywhere sticking pins in voodoo dolls shaped like the St. Louis Archdiocese.
Thank you, Jurgen Lorenzen, for letting me use your beautiful photos! (Readers, don’t get too comfortable. We’ll be back to my terrible camera work in short order.)
*Edit: Originally, I named Ghost Rider as an example of a hilariously stupid Nicholas Cage movie. Since then I have been informed by a Cage expert that The Wicker Man is a far worse movie; apparently Ghost Rider did well in theaters. My apologies to the many absurd Ghost Rider fans who may have been offended.