Prefer mystery to revelry? Cemeteries the places to visit

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NEW ORLEANS -- Mention New Orleans and most people think of jazz, Fat Tuesday and great food and drink. But lately, more and more visitors are visiting the dead.

The Big Easys aboveground cemeteries for more than two centuries have served as spooky monuments that enliven the history of the city. There are at least 42 of these cemeteries in New Orleans.

Exactly why aboveground burial started here depends on whom you ask.

Many locals believe that New Orleans took its cue from Paris famous Pere-Lachaise cemetery.

Others insist it was a smart solution to the citys high water table and frequent flooding. And still others trace it back to Spain, where the wall vault system was considered the height of 19th-century cemetery fashion. 

But wherever the truth may lie, New Orleans took a big liking to the idea, and many residents today still bury their dead above-ground.

Because many of the cemeteries have fallen into disrepair, Save Our Cemeteries, a local, nonprofit organization, is leading a drive to preserve and restore New Orleans two most historically significant cemeteries.  

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, founded in 1789, is the oldest existing cemetery in the city and the burial site of many famous, and infamous, figures from the citys past, including, they say, voodoo queen Marie Laveau. 

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is located in the Garden District and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is the cemetery most often used in films about New Orleans.

The aboveground cemeteries of New Orleans are gems in terms of architecture, culture and history, said Louise Fergusson Saenz, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries.

Their preservation is important, not only because many of the tombs are still in use by New Orleans families but also because the cemeteries can serve as outdoor museums for learning about the history of our city.

Save Our Cemeteries offers educational -- and fun -- tours of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (the guides are excellent).

With money from the tours and funding from grants, the organization has restored many tombs to their original splendor. 

The group is participating in two pilot studies that monitor conservation techniques for aboveground monuments. These studies will result in better-preserved tombs and a training program for local artisans.

Save Our Cemeteries runs tours of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. The suggested donation is $6 for adults and $5 for senior citizens and students. Children under age 12 are admitted free. 

The tour of St. Louis Cemetery No.1 is on Sundays at 10 a.m. The suggested donation is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $6 for students. Children under 12 are admitted free. For group rates (20 or more) or for more information on either cemetery, call (504) 525-3377. Visitors do not need reservations, but both tours fill up fast.

To locate meeting places, check the Save Our Cemeteries Web site at www.saveourcemeteries.org.

You can visit these and other New Orleans cemeteries on your own, but tourists are advised to visit only during the day and with other people. Going by yourself or at night may not be safe. 

Save Our Cemeteries also holds lectures throughout the year. Topics include Jazz Funerals, Yellow Fever and, my favorite, Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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