Archives Month – New Orleans Cemetery History

The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.

New Orleans is prominently known and beloved for many things, including its cemeteries. New Orleans cemeteries are world-renowned for their above-ground interments, stunning and substantial architecture, and associated funerary practices. The practices comprise of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember and respect the dead, from interment, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honor.

Beautifully described by the tourism website, Experience New Orleans, “With row after row of above-ground tombs, New Orleans cemeteries are often referred to as ‘Cities of the Dead.’ Enter the cemetery gates, and you will be greeted by rusty decorative ironwork and blinded by sun-bleached tombs. Crosses and statues jutting from tomb surfaces cast contrasting shadows, adding to the sense of mystery. Votive candles line tombs on holidays, reminding you that the dead have living relatives who still care.”1 It’s not hard to imagine why visitors and locals alike are captivated by the mystery and intrigue regarding these famous properties.

Family Tomb of J.M. Caballero, St. Louis Number 2, June 2018. A gothic revival style tomb designed by French architect, J.N.B. de Pouilly. Photo by Janine Smith.

In the 1700s, during the earliest years of the city’s history, the first recorded cemeteries were far from the substantial and picturesque cemeteries that can be visited today. It is estimated that most, if not all, burials were below-ground interments and only a lucky few were privileged enough to be buried under the Church of St. Louis (St. Louis Cathedral).

The city’s oldest recorded cemetery, known as the St. Peter Street Cemetery, was established around 1724 and reached capacity within a few short years after opening, yet the burials continued. According to Peter Dedek, author of The Cemeteries of New Orleans:  A Cultural History, the St. Peter Street Cemetery did not have a fence initially, and the city was plagued with soggy, flood-prone ground.  Archaeologists have also identified the bones of farm animals within the boundary of the cemetery, painting the picture of an unsavory environment in which to bury the dead. In 1788, during Spanish rule, the cemetery was banned from further burials, citing public health issues.2 The cemetery’s closure was one of many catalysts in the creation of New Orleans’s most iconic cemetery, St. Louis Number 1, often incorrectly thought of the first cemetery in the city.

It is a popular belief that New Orleans buries its dead in above-ground tombs because of the high water table. While that is true in some instances, especially during the early history of the city, the more accurate reason is that New Orleans cemeteries have been constructed in the cultural and architectural traditions of Europe, such as Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.3

Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France. Photo by Simon Jones via Atlas Obscura.
https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/pere-lachaise-cemetery

Below is an example of an itemized receipt from December 19, 1823, for funeral expenses for a burial in St. Louis Number 1 of a widow named Marie Blanche Bergeron de St. Germain.

Itemized receipt of fee incurred for burial. De Armas, Christoval. 1824 July 15. Vol 10, Act 202

Notice the following list of fees incurred for the Church of St. Louis for the burial of Madame St. Germain: stole rights (right for clergy to collect donations), screed (a long piece of writing), mass at night, assistance of two priests, assistance of three singers, assistance of the sacristan (person in charge of the sacristy and its content, could also be the sexton of the churchyard) assistance of the children’s choir, assistance of the “Suisse” (Employee responsible for the care of a church, the ordering of ceremonies, etc.), guardian of the cemetery, cross, censer (container of incense), bells, catafalque (a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral), large candlesticks, candles to garnish the catafalque, grave, tomb sold by the factory, land for the tomb.

This receipt gives some insight into the early burial practices in the city, including that the land for the tomb was sold by the church.

Prior to the creation of St. Louis Number 1, the St. Peter Street Cemetery had become a point of contention between the Spanish government (the Cabildo) and the Catholic Church as to who owned the cemetery. According to Peter Dedek, the Cabildo won, and after burials were banned, the Cabildo decided to repurpose the land and sell it as real estate. “…By 1802 the twelve lots…in the city block the cemetery had once occupied had been sold to developers.”4 The government did not reinter the remains despite the pleadings of the clergy, who were “…appalled by the idea of building on top of bones, on top of sacred land.”5

Below is a survey attached to an act of sale executed on December 1, 1835, before notary, Theodore Seghers. The survey is entitled “Plan de l’Islet de l’Antique Cimetiere” or Plan of the Square of the Old Cemetery. George Eustis sold Rene Salaün two lots of land “thirty two feet facing St. Pierre (St. Peter Street) to a depth of ninety-four feet, eleven inches, eight lines, facing Rampart Street, American measure,” at the corner. In addition to the land, Mr. Salaün purchased the two brick houses and the other buildings and dependencies on the lots. The act states Mr. Eustis had previously acquired the land and buildings from the creditors of Charles Janin (also an Orleans Parish notary) by act of sale on July 31, 1835, executed by notary, Octave De Armas.

The plan visually confirms that the cemetery was converted into twelve lots of real estate and sold around 1800 to the individuals listed on the survey.

Seghers, Theodore. 1835 December 1. Vol 13, Act 700. Plan of the 12 lots built on top of the “Antique Cimetiere” or Old Cemetery on St. Peter Street.

Below the survey, the following notes were written by the notary, Theodore Seghers: “The plan is copied from the plan made by Carlos Lavau Trudeau, surveyor general, under the Spanish government; the original plan is in the archives of Pierre Pedesclaux, Notary, in a file instituted ‘Diligencias practicadas para el remate del antiguo cementerio’ (Procedures carried out for the auction of the old cemetery) no. 323, year 1800. The plan was thus made in the year 1800 for the sale which was ordered by the Spanish government for the profit of the municipality of New Orleans and which took place on August 19, 1801, when the cemetery was transported elsewhere. Note: There were no acts passed before a Notary for these sales; the simple [verbal] adjudication took the place of title.

The Plan Book Plan featured below reveals houses, located on the corner of Rampart and St. Peter Streets, whose architectural type and structure indicates that they were built around the 1830s. The buildings would have been built around the same time as the sale of property from George Eustis to Rene Salaün.

Plan Book 45, Folio 69. De Armas, Charles. Surveyor. 1862 June 1.

A closer look at the elevation of the buildings indicates what the houses looked like on Rampart Street at the time the Plan Book Plan was created. The plan itself is dated June 1, 1862, by surveyor, Charles De Armas, and features a two-story brick storehouse on the corner, next to a two-story brick house, both with green vertical and horizontal wooden shutters.

Detail of elevations on Rampart Street, built circa 1830s. Plan Book 45, Folio 69. De Armas, Charles. Surveyor. 1862 June 1.

Notice the striping on the column of the storehouse. It is a possible indication of a barber shop in the 1860s.

Detail of elevations on Rampart Street, built circa 1830s. Plan Book 45, Folio 69. De Armas, Charles. Surveyor. 1862 June 1.

At the corner of St. Peter and Rampart Streets, elements of the 1830s buildings can still be seen today.

It is difficult to imagine that this busy square in the French Quarter was once the oldest recorded cemetery in the city. Locals might recall in 2011 when a property owner on Rampart Street wanted to install a pool in his courtyard. Archaeologist and professor at the University of New Orleans, Dr. Ryan Gray conducted a test dig and discovered fifteen sets of skeletal remains, all from various ages and ancestries.6 Below is a photo of Dr. Gray and his team stabilizing coffins recovered during the dig.

Photo provided to Nola.com from the 2011 file folder of the archaeological dig on Rampart St. Dr. Ryan Gray
https://www.nola.com/news/business/article_85400877-511a-5179-b4e0-7197c65d0def.html

By the 1830s, as the city’s economy continued to grow, cemeteries began evolving from their rudimentary form of below-ground burials (with the exception of Jewish cemeteries, as was customary) to the grid-like cities with rows of mausoleums that they are recognized for today. Just as in the traditions of Europe, affluent families and individuals began tomb building in New Orleans cemeteries as “[an] indicator of social status that strengthened family and class identities.”7

Metairie Cemetery, August 2021. Photo by Janine Smith.
Metairie Cemetery, August 2021. Photo by Janine Smith.

Join us next time as we delve into the type of notarial transactions associated with tomb building and tomb sales.

The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history pertaining to New Orleans cemeteries. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn more about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.

Sources:

  1. http://www.experienceneworleans.com/deadcity.html
  2. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 8
  3. Paredes, Sergio. “Odd Fellows Cemeteries.” The Three Links Odd Cast. Hanson, Toby, LeBouef, Eddie, Duplantier, Michael, and Ford, Emily. 30 Oct. 2020. iTunes app.
  4. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 10
  5. https://www.wwno.org/podcast/tripod-new-orleans-at-300/2016-10-06/the-cemetery-under-the-french-quarter
  6. https://www.wwno.org/podcast/tripod-new-orleans-at-300/2016-10-06/the-cemetery-under-the-french-quarter
  7. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 39

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