Vandals, Grave Robbers, and Fire Ants Haunt a City's Famous Cemeteries

With big challenges and little support, volunteers are keeping an iconic part of New Orleans from crumbling.

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More than a third of tourists to New Orleans say they want to visit the city’s tombs, but maintenance isn’t always a priority.

The neglected, broken roads around Valence Cemetery in New Orleans will shake your car to death. The tombs are in similar disrepair.

As he guides me through the latest vandalism inflicted upon Valence, Adam Stevenson, President of the Save Our Cemeteries volunteer organization, notes the conditions of the brick, marble, and cement.

“What do the citizens want more, streets or cemeteries?” he asks.

New Orleans’ iconic aboveground cemeteries—an adaptation to regional flooding that makes burial untenable—are one of the many reasons tourists flock to the city. But the tombs deteriorate in Louisiana’s extreme weather, and they face break-ins and vandalism from treasure-seekers. City-owned Valence is less famous than some of New Orleans’s 42 other graveyards, so maintaining it hasn’t been anyone’s priority for a long time. The city does a passable job trimming the grass, but upkeep of the tombs falls to their owners, the majority of whom have died themselves—or otherwise disappeared—over the years.

That leaves it to independent volunteer groups like Stevenson’s to fix the crumbling landmarks. Today, they’re doing urgent work.

“This is the second cemetery where we’ve had an emergency operation like this,” Stevenson says, standing before bones made visible by vandals. “Between here and Lafayette No. 2 [another cemetery] in the Garden District, there were about 20-odd open vaults. Something just had to be done.”

Stevenson is coordinating a team of masons slathering wet cement on the damaged, centuries-old brick doors of cemetery vaults. Also called “society tombs,” the vaults were originally purchased in bulk to make burial more affordable for certain families, ethnic groups, and social clubs.

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Emily Ford with Save Our Cemeteries works to remove graffiti at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

As a Save Our Cemeteries volunteer, Stevenson regularly gets to peek inside big, mysterious tombs like this and see what we all imagine to be the deeply personal, spooky tableaux within. He’s not impressed with our curiosity. “That’s the problem in these cemeteries: curiosity,” Stevenson deadpans, claiming he’s more frightened of the giant fire ant mounds that bloom in the cemeteries during New Orleans’s hot summers.

Thick-bearded mason Eddie Payne, also on the job at Valence, blames today’s emergency on, “kids digging through there for stuff people got buried with, like jewelry.”

They left quite a mess. “I came out later and found a vertebrae way over there,” Stevenson says. “Bones were loose everywhere inside the tomb.”

This scene isn’t as gruesome as the last emergency in the city's oldest and most famous cemetery, St Louis No. 1. “A couple months ago someone broke into the musicians’ tomb," Payne says. "This guy who’d only been dead in there six months, someone pulled his whole body out of the tomb.”

“People started calling us immediately,” Stevenson says. “It was a pretty intact set of remains. And I think that incident was one of the reasons New Orleans Archdiocese in January, for the most part, shut St. Louis No. 1 off to people unless you are doing research or have a licensed tour guide.”

Stevenson is a licensed tour guide. When he's not helping restore cemeteries, he gives tours of them for Spirit Tours New Orleans, one of several cemetery tour companies in the city. In his 12 years on the job, Stevenson claims to have shown around 20,000 people through St Louis No. 1.

A study by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center on behalf of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC) found that 42 percent of visitors to the city list cemeteries as an attraction they want to visit. “It ranks similar to the World War II Museum,” says NOTMC President/CEO Mark Romig. The World War II museum, however, receives a healthy flow of state, federal, and private funds to accommodate expansion and promotion—whereas the $192,000 allotted for cemetery maintenance has already been cut from the city’s 2015 budget.

Stevenson says Valence Cemetery receives even less attention because of who is buried there—a caste system even in death. “In this cemetery specifically you’re not looking at the wealthiest people in the city,” he says.

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A man walks by a graffiti-covered tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Parts of the cemetery have been closed to prevent further damage.

Stevenson stops to talk to Mr. Epson, a fourth generation mason up on a ladder patching a family tomb using the original mortar formula of lime and sand: a kinder mixture that helps preserve the tomb’s original soft bricks. Epson warns us there’s about to be a funeral. “I was surprised to see two funerals in a row the times I’ve worked here recently,” Stevenson tells me. "This cemetery averages only about six burials a year … so many people get cremated now. Families die out completely.”

Payne, who’s being paid to help repair Valence today, is one of the few masons who focuses on New Orleans’s famous graveyards. Though there is clearly much work to do, Payne has been mildly frustrated that not enough people share his grave enthusiasm.

“Even if we can find them, the families don’t want to pay for us to fix the tombs,” Payne says. “And the city doesn’t want to pay for it. And Save Our Cemeteries can’t always pay for it. So they’ll just keep falling over unless someone fixes them up.”

“Today we are just focusing on sealing up open tombs,” Payne sighs. “While in the meantime, everything else is going to hell.”

Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans author and musician. You can follow him on Twitter.

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