THE directions in the brochure pointed to a closed door at the deserted St. Peter Street at the French Quarter in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.
There was no one on the street except for an elderly woman in a green shirt and long skirt sitting by the doorway. I and my travel buddy hesitated because she looked like one of the fortunetellers or palm readers minus all the paraphernalia but she turned out to be our guide for the cemetery tour indeed. Renee, her ID said, gave us black stickers and fans and told us to wait for the rest of the group.
At exactly 10 a.m., about 20 people from Sweden, Rome, New Zealand, United States and other countries showed up at the street side. Renee stood up and introduced herself and the tour then motioned us all to follow her with the words “follow me and you will know what I am going to do to you.”
Our destination: St. Louis Cemetery 1, one of the oldest and most famous cemeteries in New Orleans opened in 1789. I know ghost and cemetery tours are best done at night but we happened to be there on a Sunday and almost all of the tour companies offer only one daytime tour. Our first stop was in front of an old building at St. Peter Street and Renee who I discovered was one of the best tour guides to the cemetery tours from eavesdropping at the other tour groups we ran into at the cemetery told us the history of the cemeteries.
Renee told us how the first cemetery was near the Mississippi River but when the flood waters came in the dead were prematurely resurrected and showed up at the front doors of their families. She narrated how the cemetery was relocated to St. Peter Street but it was overpopulated in no time and when a fire broke out, the cemetery gained 200 new residents.
In a dramatic voice, she told us that the city again had to push the cemetery backward to its current location. Right now, she said St Louis Cemetery 1 is ‘fully booked’ and there’s no vacancy.
Renee, who comes with 12 years experience as a tour guide at the French Quarter tells great stories with her sense of humor and cheerful nature. She was telling us stories that were not in the books or brochures.
We reached the gates of St. Louis Cemetery 1 and Renee humored us ‘to all stick together and wander off on our own or she’ll be out of a job.’
Then we were in the middle of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, stopping every now and then as Renee pointed out the tombs of famous personalities and their stories.
I had to sneak away from time to time to take photos. In our group, there were only me and my buddy plus two other guys who were into serious photography. The rest used their cellphones or were just there for the tour.
Under the noonday heat, the cemetery was not scary at all. There was none of the shivers and goose bumps always associated with cemeteries. We kept running into other tour groups among the tombs.
A lot of politicians and famous personalities were buried at the St. Louise Cemetery 1, including the Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Renee told the group to put a hand on her tomb and make a wish because wishes were known to be granted. I didn’t do it.
Then we came to a white pyramid-shaped tomb with the words ‘Omni Ab Uno” engraved in it. In Latin it means “Everything From One. The tomb stands out because of its shape and we learned it was the tomb actor Nicolas Cage purchased for himself.
Since March 1 this year, St. Louis Cemetery was closed to the public because of a rise in vandalism but tours are only allowed if you have a tour guide.
The architecture, the ancient tombs, decoration and history of the graveyard is absolutely worth your $25.
The tour ended after two hours and Renee took us back to St. Peter Street, with a final message “tips are appreciated but I like to earn mine.” You bet she got a lot.
Don’t leave New Orleans without taking a cemetery tour, and check out www.HauntedHistoryTours.com for more information.