Non-profit organization saves cemeteries, preserves city culture

Cam Lutz, Staff Reporter

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New Orleans’ mysticism has always been one of its most popular attractions and draws in anybody with interest in the occult. Behind the homes for vampires and ghosts exists an organization that works to make the city’s cemeteries appear as immortal as its fictitious inhabitants.

Save Our Cemeteries is the only non-profit organization in New Orleans that works to preserve its cemeteries. It funds, organizes and conducts major cemetery restoration projects and volunteer cleanup crews to keep the cemeteries from deteriorating.

Save our Cemeteries also does cemetery tours and raises awareness about their condition, providing an invaluable service to the city.

Each year, nearly 9.5 million tourists visit New Orleans, generating about $7 billion in annual revenue. Part of this tourism is thanks to the eerie above-ground tombs in the cemeteries, which have become a cultural symbol of New Orleans.

“On a practical level, tourism is the largest industry we have and … a lot of people who visit the city come to visit cemeteries. So, making sure they’re maintained, obviously, is financially prudent to the community,” Adam Stevenson, a volunteer tour guide and president of the Board of Directors, said.

The need to preserve the cemeteries runs deeper than the tourism economy. As a city that is incredibly proud of its cultural heritage, it’s important to respect those who helped shape what New Orleans is now.

“Our cemeteries are the places where the people who built our culture reside,” Stevenson said. “For some people, a cemetery is a religious place. For some, it’s an intellectual curiosity. But the fact of the matter is you can tell pretty much whatever you need to know about a place by visiting a cemetery.”

Save Our Cemeteries is looking for volunteers within the community of New Orleans to help fulfill its mission. Certain tasks, such as vegetation removal, limewashing tombs and painting do not require expertise and can transform the ambiance of a cemetery.

Since Mary Louise Christovich founded the organization in 1974 in response to the archdiocese’s threat to remove the wall vaults around St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, Save Our Cemeteries has completed many major restoration projects. Over the years, the organization has repaired numerous tombs, including that of Homer Plessy, of the historic Plessy vs. Ferguson case, as well as that of Marie Laveau, a celebrated nineteenth-century New Orleans voodoo practitioner. The organization’s focus, however, is on lesser known, often abandoned tombs.

“I am most proud of us closing approximately 48 breached or vandalized tombs in Valence Cemetery and Lafayette Cemetery No. 2,” Save Our Cemeteries Director Amanda Walker said. “I made it my mission to give some TLC and attention to neighborhood cemeteries that see few visitors or tourists.”

Save Our Cemeteries’ next major project is repairing the Karstendiek Tomb, one of only 16 cast iron tombs in Orleans parish. Also called the “Vampire Lestat Tomb,” the imposing, white gothic decor resembles that of the styrofoam tomb from the movie, “Interview with a Vampire.”

Save Our Cemeteries’ ambition and dedication to preserving the cemeteries of New Orleans is limited only by the funds it receives from donations and tours.

The organization’s profits are naturally low due to the constant need for restoration projects. While the goal to fully restore every cemetery in the city appears to be financially unfeasible today, more money provides the opportunity to move closer to that goal. Despite the issues with existing funds, the organization is expanding.

“Our tour program is what drives the funding for our restoration, and the tourism industry [is growing],” Walker said. “I think that you’re going to see more restoration because we’re going to have more tour money to do that, so we are growing. I’m pretty excited about that.”

Students interested in becoming involved either through volunteer work, research projects or internships can email Walker at [email protected]