Popular on travel sites and guides today are grave tours through noteworthy cemeteries. Cemeteries have their own interesting architecture: in low-lying New Orleans, French settlers built St. Louis Cemetery with above-ground tombs, to protect against the encroaching sea. Today, visitors come to these burial grounds to brush elbows with ghosts and visit historic marble tombs and crypts. It was customary, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for families to buy grave sites for future generations and extended family. Some tombs could hold more than a hundred bodies—once the remains were cremated, that is. Ashes were poured into a velvet urn bag, which was tied with a golden, tasselled rope and placed into a tomb.
In addition to funeral rituals, cemeteries can tell us as much about life in a particular time and place. Early-nineteenth-century New Orleans was a relatively progressive city, where free people of color played integral roles in the city’s business and culture, despite living in segregated neighborhoods. The Catholic Church, which continues to have a strong presence in New Orleans, did not segregate any of its cemeteries in the city. Thirteen hundred miles north, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, which opened in 1838, reflects a different story.