The alleged tomb of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau at eerie St. Louis cemetery no. 1 is a big white structure covered with triple-x-marks and soiled by offered food-stuffs and trinkets at its base.
It’s a strange grave in a strange city – flat, hot and obsessed with the dead – and I got to wander it feverishly at an odd time when death was even more present, shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
I got here for an anthropological conference in soft seats in big hotels, caught a cold just after clearing jet-lag and spent two post conference days wandering its sights with gruesome fever.
While knowing all its childish myths of Voodoo, vampires and touristy gothic eeriness beforehand, New Orleans still captured me profoundly. Its wide, empty boulevards, its ever-present city cemeteries with their houses of the dead, the over-worked gothic iron-railing of those balcony-houses and the all too present traces of Katrina creates a very odd vibe. Its tone is swampy, gothic and tainted aristocratic.
New Orleans was originally built by the French in the early 18th century and within what is now known as the French quater, trying to establish French, catholic high culture in this swampland on the other side of the world. This attempt turned out comme ci comme ça and the city became a crossroads of cultures, peoples and religions, mixing things to a particular blend of its very own.
The French quater is New Orleans oldtown and a great place to stroll around, visiting sites at random. Get down to Jackson square, have a look at Saint Louis cathedral and the Mississippi, pop in to some jazz joint, celebrating that it was in this city that jazz was actually born.
After an hour or two fever-walking its old centre in the hot sun you realise its trademark sights, views, odd houses, Voodoo paraphernalia and even the Mississippi river with a steamboat is all there. It’s like stepping into a postcard, but you can’t help liking it.
St. Louis cemetery no. 1
New Orleans is literally a city of the dead. It was built in an area below sea level so the dead can’t be interred but are kept in over ground cemeteries with lots of small tomb-houses. St. Louis cemetery no. 1 is one such place. It is beautiful and thought-provoking.
Surprisingly, given her legendary status, Marie Laveau (1801-1881) was really an historical person that once lived and a practitioner of Voodoo. Her status as high priestess seems thoroughly exaggerated by New Orleans mythology though, and very few actual facts about her life are known.
You’re supposed to draw a triple-x on the tomb, asking her to grant you a wish. This is forbidden, of course, risking to wear down the monument and I preferred an offering anyway, wishing for the end of fever.
Shrine of St Roch
You may have thought St. Louis cemetery no. 1 a bit odd, but wander a kilometre northeast to the shrine and cemetery of St Roch to be more baffled. The cemetery is like the former one, filled with little burial houses, but then there is the chapel of St Roch.
The catholic saint himself is a patron of good health and miraculous cures and, consequently, Catholics having recovered from all sorts of sickness and disorder leave their offerings and no longer needed prosthetics here, making up a somewhat wonderful collection.
New Orleans is full of small museums and collections, some better than others. The National WWII museum is fairly new and full of professionally made, good but a bit lifeless exhibitions and, what struck me the most, also full of WWII veterans serving as volunteer guides. It was something of an experience being told about the Higgins boats from a guy who rode in one during the war.
Louisiana State Museum by Jackson square is also excellent. When I was there they had a very informative exhibition about Hurricane Katrina.
You have to see the New Orleans Jazz Museum. It has great collections but most important it’s an arena for jazz events and performances.
Getting back to stranger things, near the WWII-museum you will also find the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum. It contains some 5 000 more or less unique Civil war items including several C.S.A. regimental flags, generals’ uniforms and a range of personal belongings of Jefferson Davis. It is all exhibited old-style and much of it may not have changed too much since the 1890s.
At the time of my New Orleans visit, Hurricane traces were on the houses, in the city museums and in people’s faces. The death toll was terrible, the economic devastation vast. But that strange, odd spirit of New Orleans survives, as always.