If you want to get a feel for New Orleans’ unique burial traditions, head to Lafayette Cemetery. This historic graveyard in the Garden District is a must-see. It’s easy to get to by streetcar (just take the St. Charles Avenue line) and it’s close to other popular spots like Magazine Street and Commander’s Palace restaurant. Plus, it’s one of the safest cemeteries in the city and it’s free to visit.

The Oldest City Cemetery

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is said to be the oldest municipal cemetery in New Orleans. It was established way back in 1833 and designed by a French guy named Pierre Buisson. He was a surveyor for the city who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

The cemetery sits on what used to be part of the Livaudais Plantation. It was known for being a burial ground that didn’t discriminate based on religion or race. When it was first laid out, it was part of the old City of Lafayette (not to be confused with the current City of Lafayette in Lafayette Parish).

Entering the Cemetery

To get into the cemetery, go through the main gates on Washington Avenue, right across from Commander’s Palace. The gates are dedicated to Theodore von la Hache, a German-born musician and composer who lived and died in New Orleans in the 1800s.

Once you’re inside, you can wander among the rows of wall vaults, tombstones, and elaborate family tombs. A lot of these “Cities of the Dead” are pretty deteriorated, but they’re still really interesting to look at.

Notable Monuments and Markers

As you explore, keep an eye out for some notable monuments and markers, like:

  • Chalmette Fire Company No. 23
  • Jefferson Fire Company No. 22
  • Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphans
  • Memorial plaques put up by the Woodmen of the World and their women’s group, the Woodmen Circle

A Diverse Group of Residents

The people buried in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 come from all over. They represent 26 American states and more than 25 different countries, mostly England, Ireland, and Germany. Some notable folks buried here include:

  • John Howard Ferguson, a judge from Massachusetts who was involved in the famous Plessy vs. Ferguson case
  • Isaac Edward Morse, a former US Congressman
  • Harry T Hays, a Confederate War General from Tennessee
  • Samuel J. Peters, Sr., a businessman from Connecticut who was an early supporter (some say founder) of New Orleans’ public schools and libraries
  • The Brunies family, local jazz musicians

Plan Your Visit

Getting There: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is at 1427 Washington Ave, directly across from Commander’s Palace. The easiest way to get there is by streetcar. Just take the St. Charles Avenue line and get off at Washington Avenue.

Ticket Info: Visiting the cemetery is FREE, so it’s a great budget-friendly activity.

More Than Just a Graveyard

While a cemetery might not be the first thing on your New Orleans itinerary, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is definitely worth a visit. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the city’s history and culture.

New Orleans is known for its unique above-ground tombs and mausoleums. Because the city is built on swampy land, below-ground burial just doesn’t work very well. The high water table means that coffins can literally pop out of the ground during floods. So, New Orleanians adapted by building these elaborate above-ground cities of the dead.

Walking through Lafayette Cemetery, you’ll see a variety of tomb styles. Some are simple wall vaults, while others are ornate family tombs with intricate carvings and statues. Many of the tombs are in a state of decay, which only adds to the slightly spooky atmosphere.

But the cemetery isn’t meant to be morbid. In New Orleans, cemeteries are seen as a celebration of life. Families often visit on special occasions to clean and decorate the tombs of their loved ones. And on All Saints’ Day (November 1), the cemetery comes alive with people placing candles and flowers on the graves.

A Peaceful Oasis

Despite being in the heart of the city, Lafayette Cemetery has a peaceful, almost serene feel. The rows of tombs are shaded by ancient live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. It’s a quiet place to reflect and escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a bit.

As you wander, you might notice some interesting symbolism on the tombs. Common motifs include angels, crosses, anchors (representing hope), and inverted torches (representing a life extinguished). You might also see some unusual epitaphs and inscriptions that offer a glimpse into the lives of the people buried there.

Respect the Residents

While it’s okay to explore the cemetery respectfully, remember that this is a sacred space. Many of the tombs are still actively used by families. So be sure to stick to the paths, don’t touch or sit on the tombs, and definitely don’t take any souvenirs. It’s also a good idea to visit during daylight hours for safety reasons.

If you’re interested in learning more about the cemetery’s history and residents, consider taking a guided tour. Many local companies offer walking tours that provide a lot of fascinating context. Just be sure to choose a reputable company that operates respectfully and donates a portion of their proceeds to cemetery preservation.

But even if you just wander on your own, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is a memorable experience. It’s a unique slice of New Orleans history that’s definitely worth detouring off the typical tourist path for. Just remember to tread lightly and respect the eternal residents.

Similar Posts