Yes, New Orleans is known for its French Quarter. This city, within the city, is a favorite of party-goers, sight-seers, and photographers both near and far. But New Orleans also has a number of other cities tucked within the city that are just as unique as the French Quarter: the Cities of the Dead.
Lafayette Number One
I first began touring them many years ago and immediately became caught up in their history and inspiration. Many of you might have read one or two of the stories I wrote that are set within these fascinating little cities. I have written many more of them, and an anthology of them will be available later this year. I'm not sure why, but the moment I set foot in the first one I visited, Lafayette Number One, I could not stop thinking about them. They are, at times, beautiful, moving, sad, impressive, and stirring. They are, in fact, just like the many towns and cities that fill in the map of our world. Some of them are run down, others are immaculate. They can be crowded, with crooked streets and confusing paths. They can have wide avenues. Some of them have rich neighborhoods, rowhouses, and even slums. They even have apartment houses.
St. Louis Number One
Tucked inside these little cities are generations of families that all have one thing in common: they are filled with residents who no longer have opportunity. Who no longer have dreams and grand schemes. Though they might have had these at one time, they do not now. Their stories have been written. Yet here they all lie, in houses as varied in death as in life. What they all have in common now is their shared knowledge of what comes after. They know what we have always wondered at. And not only do they know what comes after, they know more clearly what our lives mean. They know more clearly how important our lives are, and how hollow our pursuits are, and how precious our lives are, and how sad our lives are. They know how brave we are, how vain we are, and how afraid we are.
St. Roch Cemetery
They know because they have been us. They know because they are us. Just as our younger selves, caught in the frame of a photograph, are us from the past, when we did not yet know the present us and all that we have done and learned and found and lost, so too can we view the residents of these cities of the dead. They are what we will become. We too, will know what comes after, and will know what our lives have meant and if we lived them well, or if we wasted them.
I don't say all of that to make us dread and fear what is to come. That's not what I feel when I walk the streets of these cities of the dead. I do not pity myself because I will end up like so many who have died before. I simply see how important it is to take advantage of what we have been given. To make sure that if and when I die, I have not left a life of regret and unrealized dreams. I don't want to discover too late that I've neglected those I loved. Because it is not how we die or when we die that is important. It is how we lived, and who we lived for that is.
I never miss a chance to wander the beautiful avenues and little streets in these cities. It is always a time of reflection. If you are ever in New Orleans, make sure you take the time to see at least one of them. It will be well worth your time. (Of which, you might just be reminded, is always shorter than you think.)