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Rethinking a New Orleans tradition in 2015

29th December 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Michael Batterman
Contributing Writer

A unique cultural heritage destination, New Orleans offers all sorts of singular experiences to its millions of visitors each year. Here you can listen to Dixieland jazz at Preservation Hall; try the gumbo or another Creole delicacy at one of the Crescent City’s classic restaurants (Antoine’s turns 175 years old in 2015!); maybe you’re eager to join a second line or ride on the oldest continuously operating rail line in the world (The St. Charles Ave. streetcar). Or perhaps you’d like to scrawl the letter “X” three times on the tomb of 19th-century voodoo queen Marie Laveau? That’s a decades-old practice that many believe will bring good luck or else is seen as a prerequisite to asking the Queen for a favor. As New Orleans traditions go, marking up an old tomb in an old cemetery is a just a little harmless fun, right?


Time for a reality check. Historic cemeteries in New Orleans may be older than cemeteries in most other parts of the country, and their above-ground tombs may be curiosities for out-of-town visitors. But these tourist attractions are first and foremost consecrated sites to inter and memorialize the dead. Judging by what goes on regularly in some of the city’s local cemeteries (and not just at the Marie Laveau tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1), it’s high time for a little helpful messaging to enlighten the tourist community and clue in some of the locals as well. Here goes:

First, writing on tombs or scratching marks into the stucco actually wreaks havoc on these historic structures. Many locals are no doubt aware that the Glapion tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #1, the reputed resting place of Marie Laveau, recently received a $10,000 restoration.

The old Queen looks terrific.

Kudos to Bayou Preservation for the work, with the support of Save Our Cemeteries and the Archdiocese of New Orleans. This intervention was long in coming but was triggered by an act of vandalism last December that was much reported in the local media.

Let it be known: The old tombs in our cemeteries are delicate brick-and-stucco construction; they are susceptible to the ravages of time and require regular maintenance to prevent their deterioration. Writing or marking on the stucco or the stone closure tablets accelerates the deterioration of these tombs. We have lost tombs over the years to neglect and disrepair. Many have collapsed or, deemed a safety hazard in danger of collapse, were at some point demolished.

Our tombs are our history and heritage. They are artifacts that speak to us from the past. They are historic architecture. They are memorials to our dead. When they are gone, we lose forever that tangible link with the past.

Second, tomb-marking and related behavior in the cemeteries encourages more such behavior and promotes a culture of disrespect in these consecrated sites. It feeds the mistaken notion that marking on tombs in New Orleans is a valued tradition or is harmless fun. In recent years a couple of “faux Laveau” tombs in St. Louis Cemetery #1 have similarly become targets of graffiti artists and vandals, many of them no-doubt well-intentioned, good people who are just doing what everyone else seems to be doing (some are not so well-intentioned).

Especially in the age of blogging and social media, visitors increasingly arrive in town expecting to participate in this local custom and primed to think of it not only as fun, but as respectful of an age-old tradition. Unfortunately, our hospitality industry sometimes exacerbates the problem.

I recently arrived at the Marie Laveau tomb seconds after a visitor had scrawled a big “X” in red crayon above the marble closure tablets. Caught in the act of defacing an otherwise clean and restored tomb, his defense was “The folks at my hotel told me to do it for good luck. They even provided the crayon.

Folks, marking on a tomb is vandalism, period. Anything else you hear about it is nonsense. If you would like some guidance in disentangling the ever-developing legend of Marie Laveau from the historical reality, try Carolyn Morrow Long’s book, A New Orleans Voodoo Priestess: the Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau (The University Press of Florida, 2006).

Finally, tomb-marking encourages other kinds of disrespectful behavior in the cemeteries. As a tour guide who regularly visits several historic cemeteries in town, I can tell you that things go on – especially after hours — that would shock and scandalize most locals. From removing loose bricks to “catch a peek” inside, to breaching a closed vault to snap a photo or remove some of the contents, vandals have long felt at liberty to pillage our abandoned tombs. It used to be that tomb sculpture and wrought-iron crosses from our cemeteries would turn up on the antiquities market. How many in the community are aware that there’s a black market for human remains? Those of us who try to keep an eye on the cemeteries know where some of these remains are taken from. Do you feel a little outrage bubbling up to the surface? That’s an appropriate response. We could use a lot more of it.

Ladies and gentlemen: it’s time for a paradigm shift. New Orleans is truly a fun and funky place that we do love to share with wide-eyed and appreciative visitors. But let’s all stop lending tacit approval to criminal misconduct in our precious cemeteries. Here’s one way to think about it: How would you like your grandmother’s burial site to be treated? Would you really mind a little harmless, fun, graffiti? How about reaching through a hole in the bricks to snap a photo to post on Facebook or Instaurate. No? Spoilsport.

Then let’s agree (and I hope all hotel concierges and other hospitality industry professionals are taking note): it’s time to do away with this particular New Orleans tradition. Come on down and have fun, soak in the culture, eat and drink to your heart’s content, take in some music from street performers or at one of The Big Easy’s many music venues, take part in a second line, party till you drop. And of course visit our historic cemeteries. They are fascinating sites where history and cultural heritage are on display. Just please be respectful. Don’t mark on tombs, don’t vandalize. And here’s a new tradition to participate in: Become a member of Save Our Cemeteries. (

Even take one of their guided tours. It’s good, clean fun.

This article originally published in the December 29, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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