St. Louis Cemetery 1, New Orleans, LA. Photo by Jereme Rauckman.

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St. Louis Cemetery 1

At 9:15 a.m., as the crowd gathers, it’s easy to see that not everyone anticipated how hateful the morning sunlight would feel. Visiting a cemetery is one of the lynchpins of a good trip to New Orleans, and the oldest and most popular is St. Louis Cemetery 1. Our early start time is chosen to minimize the chance that someone will faint in the subtropical heat–the cemetery is a labyrinth of white tombs that reflect sunlight, surrounded by brick walls that block the breeze, with only a handful of palm trees for shade–but the prospect of an early morning doesn’t seem to deter ambitious travel planners as they envision their adventure from afar.

But the famous spontaneity and liveliness of a night in the French Quarter don’t mix with optimistic, premeditated, prenoon plans. Those who do show up often bear signs of where they were a few hours before: squinting eyes, a half-washed stamp on the back of a hand, or a fresh Bloody Mary. We meet one block from Bourbon Street, and plenty of guests cross it on their way to find me, seeing, perhaps with horror, how little the sun flatters the street that looked so seductive under moonlight and neon. Those who don’t see it can still smell the transformation the rising heat wreaks upon the stagnant remains of parties past along that notorious walk. Whether you slept or not, the ghost of last night is inescapable.

For me as their guide, it’s important to engage them and give them a reason not to regret waking up—or not going to sleep at all. Luckily, my easiest conversation starter is something I genuinely wonder about: what inspired you, in a city known for its nightlife, to set an alarm, ooze out of bed, and visit a cemetery?

A few are eager to share—an elderly woman once confided that as a girl she had fallen in love with local playboy Bernard de Marigny (d. 1868) and had been inspired to whitewash his neglected tomb; now she wanted to see him again. For most, however, the idea that cemeteries are creepy seems to shadow the question, and to avoid seeming creepy themselves, they start their answer with a sheepish smile or some other form of hemming and hawing. Some are clearly more excited than they can comfortably express. As a gay man, I feel a mixture of sympathy and excitement for these particular guests. Serious death enthusiasts are a stigmatized minority, and with any such group there is a need, at some point, to come out of the closet. Confident, quiet comfort with oneself is an ideal place to land, but in the initial, clumsy catapult into openness, few hit that target squarely. Many undershoot the mark; they giggle when I ask what they’re excited for, and then, perhaps in a harsh whisper, utter, “Marie LaVOO,” reverently mispronouncing the name of the famous voodoo priestess. Some overshoot the mark, grinning at my question and saying, “I’m just a freak,” reclaiming the slurs used against them as badges of honor. They are, of course, talking to a professional cemetery tour guide, who, reflection would suggest, probably shares their enthusiasm; but accustomed loneliness makes for a guard that doesn’t come down easily. Our tour, I hope, can be a step toward ease for them.

A few months into my tour guiding tenure, I got the first really arresting response to my question: one woman, with a Harley jacket and a ready smile, answered that she was a professional mortician and that she taught mortuary science at a university. As an eager but untried new arrival to death-related professions—I wasn’t even aware that “mortuary science” was the established term—I began to feel the mix of dread and excitement that means I’m about to learn a lot. However, she quickly put me, as well as the rest of the group, at ease; she clearly loved her job, her knowledge was fascinating, and her lightheartedness contagious.

After the tour, we exchanged contact information, and our correspondence culminated a few months later when I visited her campus and gave a presentation on New Orleans cemeteries during the annual professional development meeting of the Michigan Embalmers’ Society. Popular psychology suggests that public speaking and death are the human race’s greatest fears; on this occasion I got to face both simultaneously, along with a third one that for me outweighs the others: the fear of appearing ignorant. I’m used to an audience of death neophytes beside whom I’m a relative authority, and here, the tables were turned. This was never clearer than during the tour she gave me of their department. The rooms and devices and fluids she named were foreign and, honestly, a bit terrifying, driving home the fact that when the time came for my talk, only my extremely niche knowledge of New Orleans burial would defend me from being the most ignorant person in the room. It also did not escape me that I would be the only person present who had never handled a corpse. I tend to feel nervousness in the bottoms of my feet, and they were screaming in my blue suede shoes as I walked to the podium.

The event itself was predictably anticlimactic. The undergrads were quiet, like most undergrads, but the adult professionals were warm and engaged, had thoughtful questions, and continued the conversation over lunch—the best tour group I could imagine, minus our thousand-mile separation from the cemetery. My ride back to the airport came as a favor from one of the students, a laid-off auto worker who had used the loss of his job to go back to school. He said he was happy with his choice—being a mortician, he explained, felt like a more examined and truer fit for him than the least-resistance option of working for an auto manufacturer. He also mentioned one of the most common answers to my pretour question: he said he had always loved horror movies. But he said it with a smile and no embarrassment.

That trip added new stories and facts to my playbook, and I often joke about the framed certificate of honorary membership in the Michigan Embalmers’ Society that hangs on my wall. But it was also the first time I had seen a large gathering of people who shared an interest in death and felt no shame about it. And I came to the conclusion that my new acquaintances in Michigan were experts at something at which many of my cemetery tour guests are beginners: attaining comfort with morbid curiosity.

I won’t call it luck, but chance soon provided me an opportunity to observe morbid curiosity in a new way: there was an outbreak of vandalism in St. Louis 1. Defacing of the tombs was nothing new; people have been drawing Xs on tombs they think house voodoo practitioners for decades at least, scratching them in with coins or staining the plaster with lipstick and sharpies. Late in 2013, though, shortly after I returned from Michigan, a vandal countervandalized the tomb of Marie Laveau against the aforementioned vandalism—painting the large monument bright pink and obscuring the thousands of Xs beneath. This made the news in town and got the tomb a $10,000 renovation.

Then, in the spring of 2014, St. Louis 1 made the news again. While leading a tour one day, I saw a familiar tomb that looked different since my last visit: a brick was missing from its façade, the square of its absence offering a view into the interior darkness. A man stood before it, who I recognized as one of the unlicensed tour guides who scrounged odd dollars by soliciting confused tourists inside the cemetery. I watched as he gathered his group around the tomb, took a camera from one of his guests, stuck it and his hand through the hole, and returned it to her with the added weight of a flash photo that, judging by her expression, she was not eager to see. He was arrested before long.

Perhaps inspired by the publicity, imitators appeared, scraping the soft mortar from numerous tombs and leaving some with small peepholes, others fully exposed to the air, with bottles and garbage at the back to suggest people had put more than a hand inside. That outbreak prompted the archdiocese to close the cemetery to the public, only allowing family members and groups escorted by approved tour guides to enter. Now, the gates are guarded. After making headlines three times in less than a year, the cemetery has been quiet for months; aside from three huge Xs drawn in blood on the side of Marie Laveau’s tomb one morning, I haven’t seen new vandalism since.

Like my jaunt in Michigan, these stories made their way into my tour. The tomb with the missing brick stands near another damaged monument, this one with a large hole at its base, caused not by vandalism, but by nature: a palm tree grew out of it and fell over. Pointing out and explaining these back to back, I see radically different responses: to vandalism, disquiet or disgust; but to natural, chance exposure to the inside of a tomb, fascination. Below the age of about fourteen, kids rush to look inside. Older folks are more inhibited; some calmly ask whether there are any human remains inside, others ask it with a nervous chuckle, and still others back away from the opening, their feet demonstrating disinterest while their eyes rivet on the hole. What I almost never see is indifference. Attraction and revulsion are there in different ratios, but feelings are consistently strong. Never mind that there are no bones within—the empty hole is enough to evoke the absent body, and the sight of nature taking its course is enough to release morbid curiosity that elsewhere might be restrained.

I tell this story at least once a week, and I’m conscious of pieces missing from it. I never asked the arrested man what inspired him to become an unlicensed tour guide. Demand probably played a role—like me, he was paid for his services. But I can conceive of a story where he came to it by way of a passion—the love of something that becomes a means of making a living by happy accident. Maybe he visited and vandalized the cemetery out of a personal fondness for seeing and handling the hidden dead that could be fulfilled no other way, and maybe he chose St. Louis 1, as popular as it is, from a love of risk or exhibitionism that came back to haunt him. That would be the Southern Gothic scenario, if an unlikely and gratuitous one.

I can conceive of this story because mine was similar. I grew up in St. Francisville, Louisiana, a small town that local tradition claims started as a cemetery. In the 1790s the community stood along the Mississippi and flooded every spring. They buried their dead on a nearby bluff to keep them from washing away, and after enough floods, the living decided that they deserved the same dignity. That original Catholic cemetery is still there, alongside its younger Episcopalian neighbor, each a mix of headstones and mausoleums, and as kids, my friends and I would explore them. We would feel the worn inscriptions, thrilling at early dates (any birth date in the 1700s felt like a glimpse into the Big Bang) or cool names (Savannah Lana or Solomon Wisdom). Once we discovered a crumbling brick mausoleum at the edge of the woods. A thick iron door, rusty and crooked but clearly functional, stood on one side, secured with a padlock. Brickwork had once concealed its contents from view, but time had opened a hole above the door, just large enough to look inside. As with the palm tree tomb in St. Louis 1, there was no body to see, but there was more than just absence, too—behind the door, a steep stairway led down into what looked like an underground tunnel of about human height. It was impossible from that vantage to see how far the tunnel went.

We were not apt researchers, and for a long time we preferred making up stories to investigating. Once we began to ask around, the stories we heard varied around a general thrust: long ago, a young man had reacted to his wife’s unexpected death by constructing a special tomb where he could visit her in the solitude of an underground chamber. We heard and repeated this story until one of us had the insight to ask at the historical society. The docent disagreed: the story, she said, was a legend. In reality, the structure was never a tomb, but a Civil War hideout disguised as a tomb, meant to be used as an emergency shelter for civilians should the town see sudden battle. No one knew, she told us, whether it had ever been used, but the Episcopal church had been shelled during the war, and the tomb may well have saved lives.

Around this time, after years of hoarding stories, my friends and I got hired to share them: we got jobs guiding visitors around the Myrtles Plantation. It being famously haunted, the demographic we met brought the same morbid curiosity I see today, as well as, sometimes, an enjoyment of being scared. We learned to recognize this trait—they tended to laugh after they gasped—and established a small business on the side. If we hit it off with a tour guest, we might offer to bring them on a nighttime visit to the cemetery. Plenty of the house’s former inhabitants were buried there, and the church and cemetery were left unlocked all night. Those who accepted would accompany us on the short drive into town and we would escort them through the creaking cast iron gate into the cover of the oak trees, whose leaves and moss would eclipse the moonlight. By flashlight we would show them the graves, simply and professionally; there was no need to work at scaring people under these conditions.

The last and optional part of our time in the cemetery was a visit to the Civil War hideout tomb. We would describe it from afar and offer to bring them there, on the understanding that it was at the edge of the woods in the darkest part of the cemetery—nothing would be visible outside the flashlight’s beam, and they might hear a coyote howl in the woods. If they said yes, then one of us, agreed upon beforehand, would bow out—to go to the bathroom, we’d say. When it was me, my job was to run toward the front of the cemetery, but then, once out of sight, I’d circle the church and beat them to the tomb. The shifting of its foundation had opened a hole in the earth on the side opposite the door, through which it was possible to slide into the underground chamber; once I found the hole, I’d drop in, feet first, from darkness into blackness. From there I would climb the stairs and wait behind the door until I saw the flashlight’s beam approach. If I timed it right, my hand could emerge from the hole, clawing at the door, exactly as they got close enough to look inside. We were close enough to the woods that no one would hear when they screamed, or a moment later when, if we’d chosen right, they laughed.

For years I’ve shared this story when people ask me why I became a cemetery tour guide. There are tight parallels between me and the unlicensed guide in St. Louis Cemetery 1 for sure: we both satiated morbid curiosity for pay by putting our bodies into tombs, and a much larger percentage of the body in my case. But my story is easy to tell lightheartedly—even tourists love a story about a prank played on an unsuspecting tourist, and since the monument we invaded wasn’t actually a tomb, it’s easy to cast it as harmless fun. This remained the case until a friend of mine in New Orleans decided to visit St. Francisville on her own. After seeing the Civil War hideout tomb, she paid a visit to the historical society to see what she could learn. She came back with news: the Civil War hideout story, the docent had told her, was a legend. In reality, she had claimed, the structure was a tomb where a man had buried his prematurely lost bride so that he could visit her beneath the ground. In this light, my story loses some of its levity.

Here I have to overcome my discomfort with ignorance. Either story might be true, or both. Both sound simultaneously believable and fantastical. I might have ignorantly entered a tomb, or I might have consciously entered a tomblike nontomb. The same story told those two different ways could make a listener feel disgust or fascination. And so I might be more like the vandals in St. Louis 1, who knocked a tomb open, or I might be more like the palm tree that grew and fell, knocking a tomb open. When I finish my tours today, I tell them this story, and I tell it with all the ambiguity in place. The mystery makes for a better story than any of the possible certainties, and if the listener, confronted with that mystery, laughs about death, then I feel like I’ve done my job well.