Heading to New Orleans? A visit to the beautiful, historic Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is a must!
This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about this gorgeous Garden District cemetery before you go!
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If you've ever been to New Orleans, then you know that visiting a cemetery is one of the most unique things to do there. These so-called Cities of the Dead are full of history and character, and they're the finally resting places for some NOLA's most notable residents ... of which there are quite a few!
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District is one of my favorites! It's easy to get to, located in a charming neighborhood, and unlike some of the other cemeteries in New Orleans, it's safe to explore on your own or with a group.
This guide covers everything you need to know about visiting this historic cemetery, from notable tombs to unique details you won't want to miss. There's even a map.
Ready to start exploring this beautiful cemetery for yourself? Then keep reading for all the details!
About Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is located in the heart of the Garden District. It was established in 1833 by the City of Lafayette (which is where it gets its name), which was later annexed to New Orleans. It's the oldest of the seven municipal, city-operated cemeteries in the city.
This historic New Orleans cemetery takes up one city block. Although it's small compared to some New Orleans cemeteries, it's petite size makes it easy to navigate.
The cemetery is non-segregated and non-denominational. The vaults here contain remains of immigrants from over 25 different countries (many of German and Irish descent), as well as natives of 26 states.
It's hard to believe based on it's size, but the cemetery holds about 1,100 family tombs and more than 7,000 people!
This beautiful cemetery has appeared in countless TV shows and movies, including Double Jeopardy, The Originals, NCIS: New Orleans, and Your Honor. The New Kids on the Block even used it in a music video!
Writer Anne Rice, who lived nearby for many years, was also inspired by the cemetery. To introduce her book Memnock the Devil, she staged a jazz funeral during which she rode through the cemetery in a glass coffin. The cemetery is also home to the (fictional) tombs of her Mayfair witches and the vampire Lestat.
Why the Dead Aren't Buried Underground in New Orleans
There are couple reason why the dead are buried above ground in New Orleans. First, New Orleans is located slightly below sea level. Depending on where you are in the city, you many be standing anywhere from 1 to 10 feet below sea level!
When water levels rose during NOLA's frequent floods, so did its coffins. Because of this, people started burying the families in raised tombs.
The second reason you'll find raised tombs in New Orleans has to do with the origins of its residents, many of whom are of European descent. It's common to bury the dead above ground in European countries like France and Spain, and immigrants likely carried on the same practice when they moved to the U.S.
When I was in Paris a few years ago, it actually struck me how similar the cemeteries are in these two far apart cities!
Getting to the Cemetery
Getting to the cemetery is easy:
- Driving: There is usually plenty of street parking in the area, although you may have to park a block or two away. Make sure to review all street signs before leaving your car to make sure you're not parked illegally.
- Streetcar: Take the St. Charles streetcar to Washington Avenue, then walk one block to the cemetery.
- Bus: Take the #11 Magazine Street bus to Washington Avenue, then walk three blocks to the cemetery.
Lafayette Cemetery is easy to spot. As you approach the cemetery, you'll see tombs peeking over the top of the fence which surrounds it.
Entering the Cemetery
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1's main gate is located at 1420 Washington Avenue. It's located near the bright blue Commander's Palace restaurant. You can't miss it. There's also a gate on Sixth Street, but you can't enter from that side.
It's free to enter and explore this cemetery, and like I mentioned earlier, it's safe to walk around here alone and in groups. I've been here a number of times by myself and have always felt totally secure. It's small size means there's always another tourist nearby!
The cemetery is divided into 4 quadrants, which form a cross in the middle.
As you explore the cemetery, you can take one of these four main paths, walk around the outside path following the wall, or explore the narrower paths in between the vaults.
Different Types of Tombs
There are a few different kinds of tombs to be found in this Garden District cemetery: family vaults, coping tombs, society tombs, and wall vaults.
You'll find many individual family vaults, such as those seen below, in the cemetery. These tombs hold multiple members of the same family, and you'll see inscriptions with the various family member's names on the exterior of the vault.
A typical family tomb has two vaults, one on top and one on the bottom. When a family member dies, their coffin is placed in the top vault, and the tomb is sealed for at least one year. Eventually, their remains are moved to the lower level to make room for other relatives.
Coping tombs (or copings) are in-ground burials with a raised bed. They are often covered with grass or gravel or may be sealed with cement.
This type of tomb is often used by people from religions or cultures who prefer earthen burials.
Lafayette Cemetery holds a number of society tombs for fraternal organizations and charities. These associations were formed to provide aid, benefit, and insurance for relief from everyday difficulties.
One of the most well known of these tombs is the Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys (which you can see below). The society was formed to help children whose families where affected by devastating epidemics of tropical diseases, including yellow fever and malaria.
This organization is still in operation today as the Waldo Burton Memorial Home.
The wall along Washington Avenue has almost 500 vaults built into it. They're sealed and most do not have markers.
You'll find this same style of vault in many New Orleans cemeteries. They provide a more affordable alternative to pricier free-standing family vaults.
There are a few famous people buried in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, and as mentioned above, the cemetery also contains many society tombs. Keep an eye out for these notable tombs during your visit:
Judge John H. Ferguson
Ferguson was the defendant in the famous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case which upheld racial segregation under the "separate but equal" legal doctrine. The plaintiff in the case, civil rights activist Homer Adolph Plessy, is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (also in New Orleans).
Samuel Jarvis Peters
Peters was an education activist and businessman who made his fortune in groceries. He was known as the "Father of Public Education" for his role in helping establish the New Orleans public school system.
The family tomb for Merritt, George, and Albert Brunies is located in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. These well-known jazz musicians were associated Papa Laine, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Louis Prima, and others.
The raised burial plot pictured above is the McLellan-Fayesoux tomb. Several family members are buried here. The broken column in the middle is a memorial McClellan family son who died during the Civil War.
Congressmen + Confederate Generals
The cemetery is the final resting place for two congressmen from the 1800s, Isaac Edward Morse and Taylor Webster, as well as a couple Confederate generals, Harry T. Hays and George Washington Baldey.
Jeffererson Fire Company No. 22
You won't be able to miss the large, distinctive Jefferson Fire Company No. 22 tomb, which is surrounded by a cast iron fence and located near the center of the cemetery. Note the fire engine on the top of the tomb in the two photos above.
Other Society Tombs
In addition to the Jefferson Fire Company, the cemetery is home to two other volunteer firemen tombs: Chalmette Fire Company No. 23 Tomb and Lafayette Hook & Ladder Company No. 1.
You'll also find society tombs for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, German Presbyterian Community, Poydras Orphans Home, YMCA, and the New Orleans Home for Incurables.
Keep your eyes peeled for fraternal emblems in this Garden District cemetery too, such as the Woodmen of the World. This nonprofit fraternal benefit society was founded in 1890. WoodmenLife still operates today as a privately held insurance company.
The Woodmen of the World markers are some of the most ornate and unique in the cemetery. Traditionally, the monuments for this fraternal organization feature four objects: a maul, an axe, a wedge and a dove. Can you spot this imagery on the monument below?
The Karstendiek tomb is the only cast iron tomb in the cemetery. Anne Rice was a frequent visitor to the cemetery, and the vampire Lestat’s tomb (from the movie Interview with a Vampire) is said to have been modeled after this family tomb.
The cemetery is also the fictional resting place for the Mayfair Witches clan from Anne Rice's series, Lives of the Mayfair Witches. Their tomb is thought to be modeled after tombs for the Lafayette Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 and and the Jefferson Fire Company No. 22 (which is mentioned above).
The Secret Garden
The four tombs in the verdant corner below form The Secret Garden. These four childhood friends supposedly formed a secret club (The Quarto) and held secret meetings. They purchased the land in this corner of the cemetery so they could remain together forever.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1's small size makes it easy to explore on your own. You should plan on spending at least thirty minutes for a quick visit or about one hour to fully explore the grounds. Of course, if you're really into historic cemeteries, give yourself more time.
It's almost impossible to get lost in this cemetery, so feel free to wander at will. I personally like to make a right hand turn when I enter the gate and start by walking around the outside path. This is a good way to avoid the crowds and walking tour groups, which tend to enter straight ahead.
If you do the same, the wall vaults located along Washington Avenue will be on your right. Rows of tombs will be on your left ... take a detour onto these narrower pathways when something catches your eye.
You can also access any of the main paths that divide the cemetery into four quadrants from the outside path. Both the Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys and the Jefferson Fire Company No. 22 tombs that I mentioned earlier are along these main paths.
Because Lafayette Cemetery is located in a residential neighborhood, you'll see homes peeking over the top of the wall as you walk around.
I'm not sure I'd want to live in a house overlooking a City of the Dead. But I guess if I had to live near a cemetery, it would be this one! Isn't it beautiful?
The cemetery has a garden-like appearance, which is fitting for the neighborhood it's located in. You'll find lots of greenery and trees throughout.
Nature has definitely taken over in some parts of the cemetery, and many of the tombs have plants growing out of them.
Keep an eye on the paths as you walk through Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Many of the vaults and markers are damaged or in fragile condition. Do not disturb them.
Be on the lookout for broken markers as well. It's easy to step on these fragments if you're not careful.
Save Our Cemeteries is dedicated to restoring the tombs in this and other NOLA cemeteries. Their first restoration project in this famous New Orleans cemetery took place in 1979.
Since then, they've restored over 100 family and society tombs, as well as the wall vaults along Washington Avenue. Restorations are ongoing.
As you walk through the cemetery, keep your eyes peeled for all the unique details on the vaults. The tombs truly are beautiful!
Read the stones for interesting inscriptions and to try to make out family relations.
Make sure to look up, as many of the vaults have urns, small statues, and other markers on their roofs.
The space between the vaults is often narrow.
As you look around their corners, you'll see rows of vaults behind, and maybe smaller stones in between.
I thought the iron cross below was so unique and spare ... definitely different than the stone symbols found on most vaults. I'm assuming it was placed here after the original cross was stolen or damaged.
If you've been to New Orleans before, you're probably familiar with the intricate cast iron work that adorns many of the city's homes and buildings.
As you walk around Lafayette Cemetery, you'll find these same cast iron gates surrounding many family plots and vaults.
They're just one of the many pretty details you'll find in this historic cemetery!
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is an active cemetery. While it's okay to visit, you need to be on your best behavior. Here are some common sense tips for visiting:
- Be respectful. Keep in mind that this is the final resting place for many New Orleanians. As you walk through the cemetery, you may see people attending their family vaults. Be respectful and give them space.
- Do not touch anything. Do not touch, step on, or climb on the graves / tombs. Do not move flowers or other objects (they're not photo props). Do not set anything on the tombs (beads, drinks, etc.), and definitely don't deface anything. Do not look in the vaults or move anything you come across.
- Watch where you step. You may come across vaults and headstones that are broken or in disrepair. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk to avoid stepping on pieces of these tombs and to avoid tripping on cracked cement, tree roots, etc.
Tips for Planning Your Visit
I hope you enjoyed my tour of this beautiful cemetery in the Garden District! Would you liked to visit Lafayette Cemetery for yourself? Here's what you need to know:
- Location: The cemetery is located at 1416-1498 Washington Avenue in New Orleans, Louisiana. You'll find the entrance near Commander's Palace restaurant.
- Getting There: There is usually ample parking in the area though you may have to walk a block or two. If you are taking the St. Charles streetcar, get off at Washington Avenue, then walk one block to the cemetery. If you are taking the #11 Magazine Street bus, get off at Washington Avenue, then walk three blocks to the entrance.
- Hours: The cemetery is open seven days a week from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM, although it's closed on most major holidays. NOTE: The cemetery is currently closed.
- Cost: Lafayette Cemetery is free to visit. If you'd like to take a guided tour, there is a small cost. Visit Save Our Cemeteries for information on daily tours.
- More Information: Save Our Cemeteries is helping to restore New Orleans Cemeteries, and they are a great resource for information and tours for any of NOLA's cities of the dead. If you're looking for a specific plot in Lafayette Cemetery, check out this cross-index to the plaques and tombs.
- What to Wear: Make sure to wear comfortable shoes you don't mind getting dirty, paths may be narrow and / or uneven. Many areas have no shade, so I'd also recommend wearing sunscreen and bringing a hat.
To help you get around, I made a Google map with a few of the more notable tombs noted. Click anywhere on the map below to access the interactive map.
Other Things to Do in New Orleans
Now that you know all about Lafayette Cemetery, here are some other things you'll want to check out.
Start by reading my New Orleans Travel Guide ... it has everything you need to know to plan your trip. Then, check out some of my favorite things to do in NOLA:
- Visit a museum. There are so many amazing museums worth visiting in this historic city. I especially love the New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park, the WWII Museum in the Warehouse District, and the quirky Pharmacy Museum in the French Quarter.
- Admire the unique architecture. If you're already visiting the Garden District to check out this cemetery, you can't leave without viewing its jaw dropping homes. A walking tour of the Garden District is the best way take them all in.
- Experience Mardi Gras. A trip to NOLA during Mardi Gras is on many bucket lists. But if you're traveling to NOLA at another time of year, you can still enjoy the fun at Mardi Gras World.
- Escape the tourists. It's never not touristy in New Orleans. Need a break from all the people? Take the ferry across the river to quiet, charming Algiers Point.
- Deal with the crazy weather. New Orleans is notorious for its bad weather ... it's often hot and rainy, maybe both! Here's how you can beat the heat in summer and here are the best ways to spend a rainy day.
- Grab a bite to eat. If you're traveling with a vegetarian, this can be a tricky city. Check out my favorite New Orleans vegetarian-friendly restaurants that will please your whole group (veg or not!)
- Save a buck. NOLA can get expensive, but not every activity has to be super pricey. Here are my favorite free things to do in New Orleans.
- Go shopping. New Orleans has some great shopping, especially on a Royal Street in the French Quarter and Magazine Street in the Garden District and Uptown. If you're an avid reader, make sure to check out the best bookstores in New Orleans during your trip.