Tricentennial Thursday: ‘Cities of the dead’ speak loudly of N.O. history

By Mark Lombard, Clarion Herald

Cemeteries in New Orleans going back to just after the city’s founding 300 years ago have carried clues about the society and the city’s living and health conditions, and they have played an important role in its history.

When the French founded the city in 1718, burials occurred along the river bank, according to archdiocesan archivist Dr. Emilie Leumas.

Four years later, when the new town was laid out by Adrien de Pauger in 1722, a cemetery was designated just beyond the edge of the settlement along St. Peter Street, between the streets now known as Burgundy and North Rampart. The city itself in those early years  extended only five blocks from the Mississippi River to Dauphine Street.

In an effort to fortify New Orleans after 1729, a ditch was dug along this street, Leumas said, which placed St. Peter Street Cemetery just outside the then-city limits, now a part of the current French Quarter. It was accessed by a winding road from the end of then-Orleans Street.

Unlike the cemeteries to follow, St. Peter’s featured only below-ground burials in wooden caskets. Because it was set on a low and swampy site, the area was surrounded by a wooden palisade and ditches, the earth from which was used to raise the level of land.

Under the direction of Capuchin Father Charles, rector of the Church of St. Louis (before it became the cathedral), a five-foot brick wall was built, with wealthier colonists paying for the bricks and mortar and poorer parishioners providing the labor. It was dedicated with great ceremony on All Saints’ Day 1743. The brick wall served to keep wolves, coyotes and other animals from digging up the bodies, Leumas said.

For almost 70 years, the St. Peter Street Cemetery served the city. In looking at the sacramental registers from October 1733, Leumas noted there are burial records that demonstrate the diversity of this “city of the dead,” which included French soldiers; an 11-year-old boy who died of smallpox; a young slave girl; a baptized Native American slave woman; a French woman; and a baby of a

city councilor.

With the 1788 Good Friday fire, which destroyed 856 houses or roughly 80 percent of the expanding city, the overflowing of the Mississippi River and an outbreak of yellow fever that brought death to many residents, Spanish authorities ordered the cemetery closed for a time to future interments. The cemetery had to move, Leumas said, as “the city had come up around it,” expanding two blocks farther from the river. Officials, she added, “didn’t want a cemetery, because of disease, in the middle of the city. That, and it was getting full.”

On Aug. 14, 1789, a royal decree was issued approving the construction of a new cemetery and decreeing that the old cemetery would be “used as a site for the construction of houses.” This set off a church-state battle, with Spanish authorities disregarding the objections of Auxiliary Bishop Cirilo de Barcelona, vicar for Louisiana, who was defending the rights of those buried and fighting those officials who “were reclaiming sacred ground to put houses.”

The new cemetery – St. Louis No. 1 – was set beyond the city limits, and it was there that the practice of above-ground burials began. And while there were above-ground monuments in Europe, here the vaults were also above ground, with family tombs, at times, being used by more than one person.

Among those buried there are Etienne de Boré, wealthy pioneer of the sugar industry and first mayor of New Orleans; Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the landmark 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision; and Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol and designer of the central tower of St. Louis Cathedral, who died of yellow fever while doing engineering for the city’s waterworks.

From the late 18th century through the 1860s, New Orleans was stricken frequently by epidemic diseases, brought from trading ships from Mexico and the West Indies. In trying to deal with epidemics while being unaware of the role played by mosquitoes in marshy land in the spread of yellow fever, city officials passed an ordinance in 1821 that forbade placing the dead on view during the funeral service at any church from July 1 through December 1. As the city was predominantly Catholic and St. Louis Church was the only Catholic church in New Orleans, it was decided to establish a separate site for funeral services.

Two lots on Rampart Street at the corner of Conti Street were sold to the wardens of St. Louis Church for $425 for the construction of a chapel, which would be outside the city limits. Père Antoine (Friar Antonio de Sedella), vicar general of the diocese and priest of St. Louis Church, blessed the Old Mortuary Chapel, which began on All Saints’ Day 1827 to receive bodies of the deceased and provided for religious services. The burial procession was just a few, short blocks to St. Louis Cemeteries Nos. 1 and 2. That chapel became the current Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the 400 block of North Rampart Street.

Yellow fever precautions

“The reason that there was a mortuary chapel is because during these epidemics – especially of yellow fever – we had tens of thousands of people dying,” Leumas said, noting that there were yellow fever epidemics in the 1820s and especially the 1850s when some 40,000 people died.

“Proportionally, a large amount of the city was lost in several waves of epidemics. We had typhoid at some point, we had cholera at some point, but most of them were yellow fever based,” she said, adding that the last yellow fever epidemic that hit New Orleans was in 1905 that took the life of Archbishop Placide Louis Chapelle as one of its last victims.

For those who did succumb to one of the epidemics, “they were then buried or processed” from the mortuary chapel “rather than bringing those bodies into the city,” she said.

“If they died in the city, they would have died on the canal, the Irish Channel, building all of those canals as they were dropping. When you died, you died at home, you were waked at home. The body, instead of going to a church, your church, would have gone to that chapel for the service, which was outside the gates” of the city at the time, Leumas said.

As the city grew in population and ethnic diversity and expanded outward from the French Quarter into the Central Business District and newer neighborhoods, more cemeteries were created. St. Louis No. 2 opened in 1823, only a few blocks from its predecessor. St. Louis No. 3, two miles away from the original site, opened in 1854.

Today, there are 13 archdiocesan cemeteries in New Orleans, including St. Patrick Nos. 1, 2 and 3, initially established in 1841; St. Joseph Nos. 1 and 2, initially established in 1854; St. Vincent de Paul Nos. 1 and 2, initially established in 1859; and St. Roch Nos. 1 and 2, initially established in 1874. St. Charles Cemetery in Luling, the 13th archdiocesan cemetery, was acquired in 1970.

Click here to view the Clarion Herald flipbook, “River of Faith: 300 Years as a New Orleans Catholic Community – 1718-2018”

Mark Lombard can be reached at

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