The Lafayette Cemetery got its name from the town of Lafayette – not to be confused with the city of Lafayette, roughly one hundred and forty miles west of New Orleans, that later adopted the name. The cemetery was founded by the Spanish during their short-lived rule of the colony. Today, the above-ground cemetery style can be seen all over the former Spanish empire from Argentina to California.
Many believe that in New Orleans the tombs are above ground because you are not able to bury the dead due to the water table, sea level, bodies resurfacing, or something to that effect. These are only myths. There are indeed cemeteries in Louisiana with below ground graves but the tradition remains to bury the dead above ground because that’s how the Spanish did it.
The system is quite clever and makes good use of the land space. It works like this… Each family has a tomb. The tomb is concrete and marble and has two levels. On the top one, the recently deceased is placed in his/her casket. In the summertime the temperature outside reaches the 90’s or sometimes over 100 degrees; the inside of the tomb can reach about 200 degrees. This acts as a furnace and slowly cremates the person’s remains. After a year and a day the process is complete. When another member of the family passes away, they reopen the tomb, take out the coffin (that is either charred wood or rusted metal by this point), and toss the cremated remains into the compartment below. The ruined coffin is then thrown. The space is then free to add the recently departed and begin the process over again.
Now of course we can’t talk about a cemetery and leave out the spooky stuff. During the time of the cemetery’s founding, doctors hadn’t quite devised ways of discerning a death from a concussion. When they would open a tomb to place a new body in it, sometimes there would be a skeleton outside of the coffin and scratch marks on the inside of the tomb’s door… i.e. someone got buried alive. To counteract this, they started tying a string connected to a bell on the outside of the tomb. They then employed a person to stay at the cemetery all night, later dubbed the graveyard shift, to listen for the bell in case he needed to open the tomb in a hurry. If you woke up in a tomb, rang the bell and were heard, you were saved by the bell.