The first residents of New Orleans would soon discover the folly of trying to bury their dead by the banks of the Mississippi River.. When flood season came, the water table would rise beneath the coffins, pushing them out of the ground, breaking them apart and washing the human remains away – sometimes through the city streets. When the first official cemetery was constructed outside city limits (around present-day St. Peter Street), the Catholic Church built a brick wall around it to stop the problem. But with annual floods and high amounts of rainfall, the cemetery would become a virtual swimming pool of corpses.
1788 was a horrible year for New Orleans, as a massive fire, flood and an epidemic wiped out a large portion of the city. Such a high death toll brought high demand for burial plots, so a second cemetery was constructed outside town. St. Louis Cemetery #1 became the city’s first aboveground burial site (it’s currently the city’s oldest surviving cemetery). This time, the bodies stayed in place during flooding season, and above ground internment soon became the norm.
Metairie Cemetery follows the traditional New Orleans model. Built upon the grounds of the old Metairie Race Course, it is an expansive 150-acre graveyard by the Pontchartrain Expressway, just as you cross into the New Orleans Parish line.
The oval outline of the Metairie Race Course, built in 1838, can still be seen in the cemetery today. But the ravages of the Civil War and Reconstruction caused the race track to falter. The track, then owned by the Metairie Jockey Club, refused membership to a Mr. Charles Howard, a New Orleans resident who became wealthy by promoting the Louisiana State Lottery. After being refused membership, Howard vowed that the race course would become a cemetery and, on May 25, 1872, after the track filed for bankruptcy, his curse came true. The land was converted into a cemetery, owned by the Metairie Cemetery Association.
Metairie Cemetery has magnificent boveground mausoleums, tombs and monuments. These breathtaking memorials, made of marble, granite and brick, testify to the dignity and significance to many of those who are buried here.
Many of the family tombs and monuments mix stone, bronze and stained glass, and thestatuary is, in turns, elegant, touchingly sad and even sensual. Highlights include the Brunswig mausoleum, a pyramid guarded by a sphinx statue; the Moriarty monument, the reputed ‘tallest privately owned monument’ in the country; and the Estelle Theleman Hyams monument, with a stained glass casting a somber blue light over a slumped, despondent angel.
Another memorable statue includes the Army of Tennessee, Louisiana Division monument. Atop the tomb is a 1877 equestrian statue of General Albert Sidney Johnston on his horse “Fire-eater”, holding binoculars in his right hand. To the right of the entrance to the tomb is a 1885 life size statue represents a Confederate officer about to read the roll of the dead during the American Civil War.
Metairie Cemetery is the final resting place of numerous famous and revered people, including nine governors of the state of Louisiana; seven mayors of New Orleans; and three Confederate generals—including P.G.T. Beauregard and Richard “Dick” Taylor, son of U.S. President Zachary Taylor. Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, was entombed here temporarily after his death in New Orleans in 1889. Louis Prima, the world-famous singer and entertainer, is also buried here.
Metarie Cemetery offers self-guided tours. You will be given a map and loaned a recorded cassette and tape player . Seeing everything on the 150-acre grounds is most easily accomplished by car. Tape tours take about an hour, but stretching this out by getting out of the car for a closer look is highly recommended.
Metairie Cemetery was entered in the National Register of Historic Places on December 6, 1991.
Here is a delightful amateur video that provides a glimpse of the splendor of Metairie Cemetery: