Vandalism: No solo tourists in New Orleans’ oldest cemetery

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A historic New Orleans cemetery that may have started New Orleans’ tradition of above-ground crypts will soon be off-limits to tourists on their own because of repeated vandalism among the tombs, the Roman 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 the relatives of the dead buried there and to tourists whose guide is registered with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.  

“We’ve had unlicensed tour guides and others handing out markers and instructions on how to mark up various tombs,” archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said Monday. One of the most famous tombs, reputed to be the burial site of 19th Century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, is repeatedly marked with Xs and, in late 2013, was covered from one end to the other with pink latex paint.

“We also have people leaving trash in the cemetery, littering, setting up camp in the cemetery,” she said in an interview. Established in 1789, the cemetery surrounded by 10-foot-high brick walls is the oldest remaining graveyard in this city beside the Mississippi River, which has grown into a Deep South tourist destination renowned for Mardi Gras, jazz, Cajun cuisine and the sometimes elaborate mausoleums that make its cemeteries known as “cities of the dead.”

Early burials in St. Louis No. 1 are thought to have been below ground or in low tombs that held a single coffin partly above ground, according to the website for Save Our Cemeteries, a cemetery restoration nonprofit. Concrete and marble burial vaults, experts believe, were built on top of those earlier graves tombs to accommodate later burials.

All told, St. Louis No. 1 covers an entire city block with “a maze of tombs and aisles,” the organization notes. Those include walls of “oven vaults” for people who could not afford stand-alone mausoleums and elaborate tombs for members of various societies.

The thousands of people buried in the cemetery include Homer Plessy, who was the plaintiff in Plessy v Ferguson, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation laws were constitutional; the first mayor of New Orleans, Etienne de Bore; and world chess champion Paul Morphy.

Sherri Peppo, director of the archdiocesan cemeteries office, said in a news release Monday that several tombs have been broken into and vandalized in the past year. The statement said even security cameras were stolen.

Complicating matters, a local legend has it that the voodoo priestess Laveau will grant a wish for someone who makes an X on the tomb believed to be hers, turns around three times, knocks on the tomb and shouts the wish.

“We needed to take some steps to protect both the sacred nature of the cemetery and preserve the history that is there as well,” Peppo said. 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 the archdiocese a registration fee of $4,500 to $5,400 a year. The lower amount is for those paying once a year.

Both 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 of the tombs. Her nonprofit has partnered with the archdiocese for years to hire security at the cemeteries.

She noted that cemetery tours currently are being conducted by guides for “pure profit.” “None of the money goes to the cemetery,” she noted. McDonald said relatives of those buried in the cemetery are asked, meanwhile, to get in touch with the archdiocese to make entry arrangements — likewise for scholars and those conducting genealogical research.

The new fees are expected to pay to staff the cemetery during business hours and take unspecified security measures that officials are declining to reveal.

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