New Orleans is famed for its connections with Voodoo and being eager to learn more about this we signed up for a walking tour with the Voodoo Bone Lady. Our guide, Bri, explained how the the religion flourished right here in Crescent City. Voodoo was one of the main religions practiced among the slave population. Since Louisiana state ruled that slaves would be entitled to 1 day off a week, slaves would congregate in Congo Park (now known as Louis Armstrong Park), every Sunday to practice. Trouble is, anyone caught practicing Voodoo could be punished by death so they pretended to practice Catholicism instead, whilst internally saying their Voodoo prayers.
Voodoo was not the only thing to flourish in Congo park; people also came here to party which meant eating and making music. African and Native American influences fused together to give birth to that famous Creole taste. Meanwhile, musicians collaborated to lay the foundations for New Orleans’ very own art form – Jazz.
Music is so important here that every musician has the right to be buried in the most famous cemetery in New Orleans – the St Louis #1 cemetery. A lot of musicians here are very poor, and their families cannot afford proper burials, but they have the right to be laid to rest in the musicians tomb, free of charge. A remarkable feat since the cost of a tomb here is extortionately high.
The dead are well respected. This place is off limits unless you have family members buried here or have a registered tour guide due to an unfortunate upturn in grave robberies, which has literally seen the heads and faces ripped off statues.
It’s still an actively used cemetery: bodies are reduced to ash by the NOLA sun in tombs over the course of a year and a day – a year for the body to ‘cook down’ and an extra day as a mark of respect: the belief that no one wants their family member’s tomb opened on the anniversary of their burial. So, the day after the anniversary of their entombment, the remains are swept to the back of the tomb and fall into the caveau below. The walls surrounding the cemetery house these oven-like tombs and they are sinking into the ground by the year!
We were shown the tomb of famous voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. People leave favours for her to help them advance in life: money for wealth; a love letter for romance; a business card for prosperity in business. Our guide helped us submit our own wishes by telling us to spin around three times and hold our hands out to the tomb while we focused on what we wanted.
There’s plenty of superstitions that go hand in hand with the dead of course and here there is no exception; as we leave the cemetery you must walk out backwards so the dead can see you are not bad mouthing them, then you have to kiss your fingers and throw any spirits who have latched onto you back into the cemetery. I couldn’t help but feel like a WWF wrestler signing off for the night!
In the centre is a pyramid. It looks really out of place and is really clean; a contrast to a lot of the graves here! In front of it is a plaque that reads “Perpetual Care”; this means that the owner of this tomb has paid for the eternal upkeep so that it isn’t left to crumble to dust. You can only imagine how much that costs! The tomb is empty. It is owned by Nicolas Cage (yes the actor). He has no family in the cemetery, just this monstrosity to house his super ego after he dies.
Cage also owned a house in the French quarter (we think he lost it due to bankruptcy). It’s not sought after since common consensus has it as a haunted house following the previous tenant’s penchant for slave torture. Madame Lalaurie used to do horrible things to her slaves such as breaking their limbs and re-setting them at unnatural angles or disembowelling them and wrapping their intestines around their waists. Yuk! Apparently Nick wanted to write a ghost story there but got too busy with making rubbish films.
You couldn’t ask for better inspiration than the French Quarter though. The houses are beautiful and unique. Although they have to be painted in one of 16 approved colours, and exteriors cannot be altered; meaning you need to keep those pointy Romeo spikes (installed and named so by over-protective dads), and beautiful fountains (which were actually required to put out fires since the French Quarter burnt to the ground twice before the Spanish got their hands on it!).
This area of NOLA is charmed; untouched by the floods heralded by Katrina (due to it being on higher ground and not attributable to any Voodoo related requests). It is remarkable this gem is still here for us to enjoy 11 years on. Especially when so many other buildings and homes are yet to be repaired. It’s unimaginable how much effect this kind of event has on people’s lives. Our guide told us of how she had lost touch with so many people because mobile phones weren’t prevalent in 2005. People had disappeared never to return and no one knows if they are still alive. Only last week was she reconnected with a friend she’d not heard from since the disaster.
Nonetheless, the Big Easy continues to bounce back and hopefully one day it will be returned to its former glory.