Derived from Greek, the word “necropolis” means “city of the dead,” and few places make the word seem appropriate quite like New Orleans’ above-ground cemeteries. The city’s position in relation to sea level makes it hard to bury the dead, making these types of cemeteries necessary. And, as often happens, necessity gave rise to art. St. Louis Cemetery #1 is the city’s oldest burial spot. It’s lined with monuments that date back centuries, and which exist in various stages of upkeep, from the brand new and well-preserved to graves crumbling into deep disrepair. The tight quarters, disorienting passageways, and intricate, sometimes eerie, religious sculptures give it an atmosphere unlike any other place on Earth.
It’s easy to see why Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and the rest of the team behind Easy Rider would choose it for the film’s acid freak-out sequence. Yet, removed from the rapid editing, distressing industrial noise, and hallucinatory muttering, the place has an eerily peaceful quality. A steady stream of tourists come and go throughout the day, but the cemetery’s walls and looming monuments otherwise largely isolate it from the sounds of the city around it.
The necropolis also has its celebrities. These include Homer Plessy, of the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that changed the course of civil rights legislation, Etienne de Boré, New Orleans’ first mayor, and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, the city’s first black mayor. But the most-visited grave belongs to Marie Laveau, a reputed voodoo priestess sometimes called the “witch queen of New Orleans.” Even though it’s not entirely clear if she’s buried here, Laveau receives daily offerings from those seeking her favor. Gifts include cigarettes, coins, candles, Mardi Gras beads, and alcohol, and the truly determined scratch three “X”s on the side. (The cemetery does not encourage this practice.)
It’s a heavily populated city too, with an estimated 100,000 buried in the space of one block. In fact, in many respects, it’s less a city than a suburb of the busy town nearby, one to which a fair number of New Orleans’ residents have moved over the centuries.