by Christine Sutton
A few years ago, my husband and I decided to go on a much-needed vacation. Some time away from the stress of everyday life was just what we needed. We had a little more than two weeks available and really wanted to make the most of our time, so we got a map of the United States and proceeded to go state by state, weighing the pros and cons of each potential excursion. We had both always wanted to visit New Orleans, so we figured this would be the perfect opportunity.
I was so excited to see the sights of the Crescent City: Bourbon Street, the French Market, the view of the Mississippi at dusk, and of course, the iconic graveyards.
After spending our first few days in the city sampling its unbelievable cuisine, partaking in the nightlife of the French Quarter, and walking through Jackson Square amongst the fortune tellers and musicians to get to Café Du Monde so we could get our fix of sugarcoated beignets, we decided to visit St. Louis Cemetery #1.
By eight in the morning, as we set out to visit the historical boneyard, it was an already sweltering July day. We passed groups of musicians standing at the various intersections within the Quarter, tuning their instruments and playing soft, sweet renditions of various songs made famous by Stevie Wonder, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. The melodic notes of love, loss, and heartbreak filled the air and brought with them a perplexing blend of joy and melancholy. We could smell that morning’s beignets and chicory coffee being prepared and we vowed to stop on the way back to indulge our cravings once again.
Strolling down the street, we spotted a white carriage with a dapper driver sitting upright in its seat. He wore a red silk vest over his all-black outfit and a top hat, accented with a ribbon in the same shade of crimson. The white horse standing majestically in front of the carriage seemed unfazed by the crushing humidity and whinnied as we passed by.
“Headed to St. Louis?” the driver asked.
“Yes, we are,” I replied with a smile.
“Don’t you let none of them ghosts follow you home,” he said, with a warm smile of his own that was most likely reserved for tourists, to make them feel at home.
After walking a bit, we came to the entrance of the St. Louis Cemetery #1.
It was a sight to behold. The walls of the outside were a stark, blinding white against the colorful background of the vibrant town. The cemetery had the look of a small city within a city, with peaks and crosses visible above the borders.
We read the plaque outside the gates, telling us the history of the graveyard. There was a feeling of awe within us as we entered. The palpable sense of history and death weighed heavy on our hearts.
Modern-looking structures stood, reminding us that death knows no time. Whole families had been laid to rest within mausoleums dedicated to honoring their heritage. The graveyard was laid out like a labyrinth, with very little space between the dead. The dead had no need for personal bubbles, or room to stretch. Mixed with the grandiose artistry was a feeling of utilitarianism that illustrated the cost of death in real estate and privacy. Both were obviously premium commodities.
We walked amongst the monuments, taking pictures of the beautiful architecture of sadness and loss.
Reaching the center of the cemetery, we began to see the darker side of New Orleans’ history. There were several of what they called “oven vaults,” rounded, aboveground graves that sat stacked on each other to maximize space.
Beyond that, we saw the older, untended vaults that were in different states of disintegration. There was yet another plaque, telling us that many of the bodies previously interred here had been washed away during Hurricane Katrina and other natural floods and disasters. It reminded me of an old building I had seen in the Gold Country of Northern California. The burned-out brick structure sat as a reminder of time, a century or more in the past, when life was much simpler.
The dead, whose remains had been long forgotten by their descendants, or the dead, whose remains were the last vestige of their line, had been moved or were missing from their resting places.
As we stepped away from the destruction of those graves, we searched for one of the reasons we had decided to go to the graveyard in the first place: the burial site of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.
As we stepped up to the tall, square structure, no bigger than a closet, we noted all of the tiny triple X marks made on the outer walls, and the small trinkets laid around the opening. There were beads of all colors, lip balms, small figurines, toys, and coins. It made me a little sad to see all the hopes of people who had come to ask for help reduced to a few baubles.
Legend says, if you go to the resting place of the Voodoo Queen, you carve or write three Xs on the tomb, turn around three times, place an offering to Madame Laveau, and ask her to answer your plea.
Being tourists, we felt it necessary to partake in the local tradition. I placed my three marks, turned in a circle thrice, and placed a coin at the door of the tomb. I asked that our travels be safe. We took a few more pictures and went on our way, exploring the rest of the grounds.
When we rounded a corner, we saw another small building covered with X marks. Although we were confused by the second mausoleum, we decided to take a look.
At the door, a dark-skinned woman sat, holding a small, folded blanket in her hands. Her face was streaked with tears, and she gently rocked and chanted. I felt like an interloper in this woman’s grief.
Her head raised and her eyes met mine. She gave me a forced smile and wiped at her tears. She placed a yellow flower on the ground and said in a thick Creole accent, “Let his soul be at rest.”
I saw that the blanket she placed next to the already wilting flower was adorned with pictures of each letter of the alphabet in a cartoon style, with a teddy bear hugging each one.
I felt a deep pain in my heart for this woman, one that tugged at my soul. She quickly walked away. I wanted to tell her not to leave, to please not let us interrupt her mourning. Before I could untie my tongue and work past the lump in my throat, she was gone. As a remembrance of the solemnity of that beautiful place, I took a photo of the tomb with the delicate receiving blanket placed at the entrance. When I looked around the maze of graves, I saw no trace of the woman, save for that tiny blanket.
We continued our tour of the cemetery, marveling at the beauty and sadness. Thoughts of the woman never left my mind.
Upon returning to California a week later, I spent an evening sifting through the hundreds of photos taken on our trip. When I happened on the photos taken of Laveau’s tomb, I looked for the picture of the sad blanket with the happy bears. It wasn’t there. There were shots of the Mississippi River, the decadent plates of Creole food, bright colors and extravagant displays, various people we met along the way. Even the pictures taken at St. Louis Cemetery were there, but the picture of the blanket was completely gone.
Many times over the last few years I’ve thought back to that woman and the grief she carried for what I presumed was her infant son. I’ve even considered doing some research to find out who she was and what happened to her child. Every time I think I might do it, something in me stops.
I think I don’t like that feeling of being an interloper in the woman’s grief.
So I will leave her sadness sitting in that folded blanket covered with the cartoon teddy bears, at the feet of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Exactly where it belongs.
Christine Sutton is the author of the bestselling series The Burkheart Witch Saga, along with several other titles in the horror and paranormal genres. She writes short stories, collections, novels, and essays about scary people and things whenever she can. Living in Central California, she has had a fascination with cemeteries since she was young. Christine has visited many graveyards in her home state with tombs dating as far back as the 1700s, but her heart left a small piece of itself in New Orleans.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.