New Orleans’ cemeteries, with rows of stately mausoleums and aboveground tombs, are known as “cities of the dead.” Tourists are a common sight at the city’s best-known burial grounds, particularly the ramshackle St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, rumored to be haunted by voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
But one of NOLA’s largest and most grandiose graveyards, Metairie Cemetery, is less of a tourist draw. Perhaps this is because Metairie is slightly hidden, located around a 30-minute drive from the French Quarter. Or maybe visitors are kept away by the phantoms that supposedly roam Metairie’s enormous green space, dotted with Egyptian statues and bone-white monuments.
I first learned of Metairie Cemetery from Cynthia Von Buhler, a multidisciplinary artist who paints, draws, sculpts, writes, and creates immersive theater. I came across an image of Von Buhler kissing an exquisitely carved sphinx in front of a pyramid-shaped tomb, a photo so captivating it convinced me to put Metairie Cemetery at the top of my New Orleans must-see list.
To my surprise, I get my first glimpse of this necropolis soon after leaving Louis Armstrong Airport. Speeding by in a taxi, I catch sight of giant crucifixes and angel heads poking over drab walls, a sprawling fantasy land of mysterious monoliths and vengeful tales from beyond the crypt.
Instead of being wary of, or scared by graveyards, Von Buhler feels inspired by them. “I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries, as well as drawing in them,” she says. “They are peaceful, reflective places where you can ponder your life, and the lives of others who came before you.”
Von Buhler frequently takes road trips around the U.S. to research cemeteries for her creative works. She first visited Metairie while driving from New York City to Louisiana, and has since explored and studied it thoroughly. “It has intriguing aboveground mausoleums because the location has frequent flooding,” she explains. “If coffins are buried under the dirt, they can float up.”
When I step through the cemetery’s arched gates, I am struck by the scale of the grounds: Metairie has more than 7,000 tombs spread out across 150 acres. I wander for several hours and only come across a handful of other visitors.
Metairie’s gray-and-white marble mausoleums are a study in extravagance. Many crypts are the size of small houses, spaced apart from their neighbors and set on manicured vistas shaded by trees. Some resemble Greek temples lined with Ionic columns. Others have stairs leading up to stained glass doors, with guardian angels seemingly beckoning me to visit the ghostly residents within.
I gaze up at Moriarty’s 80-foot tower, built by a husband so that his wife could look down at those who had snubbed them in life. “Tante” Babette Vonderbank’s mausoleum includes bronze replicas of her niece and nephew, their skin stained alien-green by time. Almost every tomb has a unique detail that hints at the deceased’s personality.
Founded out of spite
Metairie Cemetery’s origin story is befitting of its odd-looking crypts. The land was once a racetrack, established in 1838, that belonged to the exclusive Metairie Jockey Club. Charles T. Howard, a wealthy man from Baltimore, applied to be a member but was rejected as a “new money” outsider. Enraged, Howard vowed to buy the course and turn it into a cemetery.
The racetrack’s status declined in the 1860s as the Civil War raged, and it was converted to an army training camp. By 1872, the Jockey Club was financially close to death. Howard and his partners bought Metairie Course, making good on his promise.
The architects designed the graveyard around the horse track foundation, resulting in an unusual oval layout. The inside portion was branded “Millionaire’s Row,” while the rows branching outward were reserved for less expensive plots.
Today, Metairie Cemetery is what Von Buhler calls “a who’s who of famous Louisiana residents.” Notable politicians, football players, restaurateurs, and artists rest in the aboveground crypts. A St. Gabriel trumpeter stands over the body of jazz musician Louis Prima. Anne Rice’s future tomb has an ominous black cross on the door, as if to keep out the vampires that populate her novels. Other memorials commemorate the history of the city, such as an Army of Tennessee tumulus that Von Buhler describes as “an elaborate hobbit house dug into a hill.”
Whenever Von Buhler visits gravesites, she picks up ideas for her graphic mystery novel series Minky Woodcock. She has found countless seeds of inspiration at Metairie Cemetery, where several tombs come with their own ghost tales.
Von Buhler’s favorite sinister story is about Josie Arlington, a successful New Orleans madam who bought herself a plot at Metairie. “Her mausoleum features a young woman pushing a door open, as though she is about to enter it,” says Von Buhler. “People were convinced it was haunted because a nearby red street light shone on the statue.”
Curious onlookers flocked to what they nicknamed “The Flaming Tomb.” Fed up with the attention, Arlington’s family removed her body and placed her in an unmarked grave. “Since then, the statue is said to walk around the cemetery at night,” says Von Buhler. “If I saved up my money for such an elaborate tomb and my family removed me from it, I would become a haunting ghost too.”
The riddle of Brunswig’s sphinx
Few expected Lucien Napoleon Brunswig, founder of a pharmaceutical company, to build such a bizarre burial vault: Brunswig’s tall marble pyramid is guarded by a sphinx. The mythical man-lion sits at one side, while a woman with an urn points to the portal, carved with ancient Egyptian symbols of power.
Von Buhler is mesmerized by Brunswig’s fantastical mausoleum. “Looking back, it may have placed the connection of pyramids, illuminati, and animal-human hybrids into my subconscious mind,” she said. These themes inspired her book and play The Illuminati Ball.
Von Buhler is similarly moved by Hyams’ Tomb, which features a “weeping angel statue that truly personifies the man’s grief over the loss of his two sisters,” she says. Chapman H. Hyams, an art collector and stockbroker, commissioned a replica of sculptor William Wetmore Story’s Angel of Grief sculpture. The white marble divinity is bent over in despair, cradling her face in her arms as she sobs. A stained glass panel emits an eerie blue glow onto her back, heightening the sense of tragedy.
Metairie Cemetery pays tribute to New Orleans’ departed animal residents as well. Heaven’s Pets sits next to a lush flower garden on one side of the lawn. Founded in 2006 by a NOLA veterinarian and his wife, these grounds commemorate furry friends who, according to a plaque, leave “paw prints in our hearts forever.”
My heart skips a beat when I see a statue of a loyal dog with tears in its eyes, flopped in front of a tomb. “According to legend, local man Francis Masich’s dog followed his coffin to the grave and wouldn’t leave it,” says Von Buhler. Sympathetic visitors leave flowers in the pet’s mouth, or wrap ribbons or bandannas around its neck.
Von Buhler describes the spirit—and spirits—of Metairie as “a massive park filled with delightfully macabre follies.” The cemetery’s over-the-top crypts mirror the spirit of New Orleans as a whole, a historic city of eccentric residents and madcap ghost stories. Take a long stroll past Metairie’s ornate houses of the dead, and let your imagination run wild.
If you go
Metairie Cemetery is open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.