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Cities of the Dead and Other Tourist Attractions

Last week I tagged along with my husband who went to New Orleans for a conference. It seemed like a good way to have a mini-vacation of sorts, and I considered it work-related. What better way to come up with new ideas for stories than to go to someplace like New Orleans?

If you are stuck for ideas, go there and take a tour. Any tour, doesn’t matter. There’s something about that place that encourages the imagination and tempts the muse to come out and play. Mine had a great time dancing through the cemeteries. I got an idea for my next story while touring St. Louis Cemetery #1. If you’ve never been, that’s where Marie Laveau is buried. Or entombed, I should say.


St. Louis Cemetery #1. Home Sweet Home!

The Cities of the Dead are fascinating. If you’re from Europe, it won’t be new to you. If you’re from Texas, you just don’t see many places like this. The rumor that they use tombs, rather than bury in the ground, because the water table is too high is wrong. I saw many buried-in-the-ground graves on our tours. The reason they do it is buried (no pun intended. OK, maybe it was) in their Spanish (yes Spanish) and French history. It’s a pretty common way of handling the dead in Europe, one they brought with them when they occupied the territory. (A huge fire, and disease, killed off a lot of people who all had to go somewhere!)

I loved the whole idea of having one tomb for the entire family. It’s the original recycling. Basically, they stick Aunt Martha in the tomb, and leave her to bake for a year and a day. By the end of that time she’s reduced to ash, a few bones, and possibly breast implants. They scoop her into a bag and push it to the back of the tomb, destroy what’s left of the casket and voila! There’s room for Uncle Fred! What I found fascinating was if everyone in your family used that tomb you would end up with your entire family tree inscribed on it for all time. Or until it weathered away, I suppose. No decision to make on where to bury someone. No huge expense either, because the tomb already exists. No point in using a fancy casket, as it gets destroyed when they make way for the next person.

And for all time, your family knows where to get in touch with you. Maybe for some that’s not a good thing. But I think for a lot of people that would be comforting. For example, our tour guide pointed out one type of tomb…the wall vault. They were pristine and painted white, generally. It’s where they put people who don’t have a family vault or can’t afford one. The poor people section, I suppose. Condos, someone called it. Then she pointed out one particular vault which stood out from the rest:


A decorated wall vault.

 Why does it look like that? Because that’s where this man’s grandmother resides. (I’m sorry, I didn’t catch his name.) He visits her every day. He brings her flowers, trinkets, beads. He hand-paints her front door so she has something pretty. By hand-paint, I mean literally. As in, no brush. Only fingers.

After he started his art fest, they instituted a rule so that nobody else would follow suit. The rest remain white and cold. But this particular tomb has been “grandmothered” in, so to speak. They don’t dare tell him to stop. His grandmother might get mad.

I don’t like to think about all this much. It reminds me just how fleeting life is, and how someday someone will have to make those decisions about me. Or I’ll have to make them about someone I love. And in Texas, that means figuring out the right spot of land and getting a headstone and telling someone what you want it to say at a moment when you probably don’t feel like talking about it. I have to say, New Orleans has it right.

Wall vaults, and tombs, at St. Louis Cemetery #1

And let’s face it, what better place to be inspired! Anne Rice knew the power of places like this. Now I do too!


Note: I don’t write vampire stories or even ghost stories. But I got great ideas there anyway! At least, I think they are great. Hopefully others will too, someday.


18 comments on… “Cities of the Dead and Other Tourist Attractions”

  1. Coleen Patrick

    I lived in New Orleans for a couple of years when I was a kid and got to go back once with my husband. It really is a fascinating place! I remember the above ground cemeteries leaving quite an impression on me as a kid.
    Happy writing Melinda!

    • No kidding! It’s impossible not to feel inspired there. Of course, WHAT it inspires might be in question. The stroll down Bourbon street late at night was…interesting lol.

  2. The water-table story’s not true? Dang. I’m disappointed. That said, the Cities of the Dead are, indeed, beautiful, spooky, and they kickstart the imagination.

    • Yeah, my tour guide was most emphatic about that point lol. She made sure to point out all the in-ground burials along the way. Some tour guides will still tell you it’s the water table, but I think it makes much more sense that it was just European tradition. An efficient use of land-space, for sure. A lot of people on the tour were quick to point out that they live in places that are below sea-level and they bury in the ground just fine. As we get more crowded population-wise, it makes sense to tighten up on the room we use for our dead people. To me, anyway. Plus it looks awesome!

  3. Debra Eve

    Love this, Melinda. I’ve seen many vault tombs in England and France, dedicated to whole families, but this one is especially evocative. What a poignant story about the man and this grandmother.

  4. I have always wanted to go to New Orleans, but have never been. The pictures of the tombs remind me of Havana. I don’t normally like graveyards, but if it’s a historical site I can visit during the day, but not alone. Thanks for the fun tour.

    • Oh I definitely didn’t go alone ;-). In New Orleans, I hear that’s not a very safe thing to do. But I have been to some alone before and actually once you get past the whole “there’s dead people here” thing it’s a great place to find solitude. And beautiful. Most are in places surrounded by trees and pretty growing things. It’s peaceful. Too peaceful? 😀

    • The main idea I got might really gross some people out. I can’t wait to share it :-D. But it’ll be awhile. Makes me want to go outline my next WIP right now, that’s for sure. I don’t want to lose this idea.

  5. Great post, Melinda! I definitely LOL’d in places. I went to New Orleans a few years ago. Adored it! We took a walking ghost tour one night. That was the best ghost tour we’ve ever been on. Anytime my best friend and I go anywhere we take one, so we’ve been on a lot of them. I definitely recommend New Orleans as a place to visit and as a place to get wonderful ideas. 🙂

    • I loved the ghost tour! I’ve done two now, one in Philly and one in New Orleans. It was a fascinating way to learn a bit of history. If they did that in high school I’d definitely know more than I do now.

  6. You have quite the sense of humor Melinda! And a way of making light of a sometimes dark subject. I do hope that you enjoyed the rest of your stay with your husband and had fun! 🙂

    • hehe thanks! I know it does seem creepy to go hang out in a cemetery but darn it, these are just so cool! I had a blast and ate entirely too much. Oh, the food….worth going for that alone, I tell ya.

  7. Great post, Melinda! It has been a long time since I’ve been to New Orleans, fascinating place. Loved your description of the Cities of the Dead. I love tagging along with my husband on business trips. It’s the best way I know to jump-start stories, plus it’s fun to go somewhere different with my sweetie.

    • Thanks! I know, isn’t it the best way to see a place? He gets to have company on his business trip and I get to play tourist. It’s a win-win :-D. I always take tours deliberately to get some photos, since photography is my hobby. Plus it gives me visuals to share. Hopefully I’ll get some more posted here. There’s some flash fiction just dying to be written about some of these places.

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