Origins of New Orleans Cities of the Dead

Origins of New Orleans Cities of the Dead
August 23, 2009
Kathleen K Parker

Today the drainage system in New Orleans cannot completely compete with heavy rains, storms, and hurricanes. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, flooding was even more of a problem, especially where cemeteries were concerned. New Orleans is a natural bowl-like depression, said to be about six to eight feet below sea level and supposedly still sinking. Much of the city and surrounding communities is built on dredged out and filled in swampland.

The city’s present drainage system was begun in the late 1800s. Prior to that, there was no such system, and the water had hardly anywhere to drain. Adding to these problems, New Orleans has always had a very high underground water table.

Tombs in Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans Photo Kathleen K Parker

Initially, burials were underground in New Orleans. Common “beneath the ground” burial practices often resulted in the washing away or exposure of grave sites. Families of the deceased sometimes filled coffins with rocks or tried to drill holes in the coffins to keep them from floating to the surface. However, these methods rarely worked. A new method of burial was needed, and above the ground tombs were the solution. Eventually, the Cities of the Dead were born.

In New Orleans’ earliest years, the dead were buried along the Mississippi River’s banks. In the 1730’s, the population grew, and a parcel of land known today as St. Peter’s Street Cemetery was created. Fifty years later it was closed due to its limited space and to the population’s fear of disease. A new cemetery,St. Louis #1, was created and can be toured today.

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