Finding a way to protect St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
The archdiocese is planning to institute new guidelines for tours at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 near the French Quarter, which has had consistent problems with people defacing or otherwise damaging tombs. Can you say what led to that decision?
It’s been a sad situation. People have defaced graves. People have, at times, removed bricks from the graves. Sometimes people have removed bricks so they could actually look into the graves. This is not respect for the dead, it’s not respect for someone else’s property and it’s really a violation of what it means to be charitable and to respect the dignity of those who have gone before us in death.
What have some of the major problems been?
The main thing is that people have been writing on the graves and removing bricks, especially around the tomb of Marie Laveau, who was known as the voodoo lady of New Orleans. These actions could potentially destroy the graves.
You’ve asked for licensed tour guides to pay a fee to the archdiocese to give tours at St. Louis No. 1. Is that a way of better monitoring what happens inside the cemetery?
Absolutely. I want to be very up front and fair about this – many of our tour guides do excellent jobs and offer tours that are based on historical facts about the cemeteries and the history of New Orleans. Some tour guides do not. They make up things that are untrue and basically offer a “haunted house” approach to the tours. Since we started examining the problems at St. Louis No. 1, we also found out there are people who are not licensed who are giving tours. This presents a professional problem as well as a historical problem, and it gives a wider opportunity for people who might not have respect for the dead at the top of their priority list to access to the cemetery. There are busloads of people who go through these cemeteries on a daily basis, and we’re glad for them to visit and to reverence the dead. But when it goes beyond that – with things like defacing the tombs or marking them with voodoo symbols – there’s just no way that can be justified or condoned. We’ve come up with some guidelines that the tour guides will be asked to follow, and, in general, there’s been a very positive response from the tour guides.
Is this a problem you heard about when you came back to New Orleans in 2009?
I think it’s been more prevalent in the last two or three years. Our cemetery workers have noticed an increase in the activity. It came to sort of a boiling point when Marie Laveau’s tomb was heavily damaged last year. In that case, both Save Our Cemeteries and the archdiocese collaborated to make sure that grave was put back into proper condition.
Is this a shocking thing to you?
I guess I was somewhat surprised by this, but the more I thought about it, why would I be shocked? When people use guns and knives to settle arguments on the street with people who are alive, why would we think they would respect the dead anymore? I know that may sound a bit cynical, but we are living in an incredible time of disrespect for other human beings. When I really began to reflect on it, I asked myself, why would I be surprised about this?
Are there any other archdiocesan cemeteries that have similar problems?
I don’t think it’s happening in any of the parish cemeteries that we operate, and I’m not aware of it happening in any of the other large cemeteries.
Can tourists, on their own, still walk through St. Louis No. 1?
Tourists will no longer be able to enter St. Louis No. 1 without being accompanied by a licensed and registered tour guide. This is in order to better monitor the situation in the cemetery and ensure that people are not doing things that are inappropriate. People are welcome to visit, but they must be part of a tour. People who have family tombs in St. Louis No. 1 will work directly with the Cemeteries Office to receive passes and make arrangements for visits. Historians and scholars conducting research will contact the Archives and Records Office to gain admittance. That’s the same process historians and scholars use right now whenever they do research in the archdiocesan archives. These new guidelines apply only to St. Louis No. 1. We’re going to expand hours there as well, which will be good for the licensed tours. We’re also going to be adding security workers to be more attentive to what’s going on. St. Louis No. 1 is one of the historic treasures of New Orleans. We have to do everything we can to protect it, out of respect for those who have gone before us.