For a woman in her mid 70s she’s surprisingly youthful. Graced with a virtually unlined face despite years of struggle with untimely death and loss, she’s a bright-eyed testament to the vitality of her voodoo faith.
For many, the word voodoo conjures up vivid images of death cults, ritual sacrifice and downright spookiness.
In New Orleans, voodooism is an acceptable religion, densely woven into the fabric of this richly coloured city, a creed practiced openly by a significant minority of its citizens and respected by most.
New Orleans Voodoo
Priestess Miriam Chamani is the founder and Queen Mother of the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. She cuts a striking figure dressed in a flowing skirt of many hues, a top to match and eyes that seem always in sharp focus.
A conversation with Priestess Miriam is manifold with parables. You don’t so much as chat as listen while she poses questions about the meaning of life and death following one question with another that may, or may not, answer her previous question.
Her wisdom is offered in circular patterns, always returning to a central tenet, the importance of love and acceptance for all people no matter the religion or race and that life will go on while the dead are remembered.
In her eclectically decorated temple, Miriam works her magic. Currency notes from round the world are pinned to a bewildering array of small shrines dedicated to just about every major religion practiced in the known world.
Paintings of saints adorn walls of numerous small rooms. Attempting to take it all in, in just one corner of one room I saw a small stuffed alligator, beaded figures and ceramics ranging from kitsch Jesus figures to an old photo of who I think was Albert Schweitzer. But I didn’t see a voodoo doll with pins stuck into it anywhere.
Her inner sanctuary contains a desk overrunning with curios, crucifixes and divining bones. A computer is nearly hidden amongst the assortment, like an afterthought to 21st century connections. But I didn’t see a chicken carcass either, nor meet a zombie.
Cemetery Voodoo Tours
Before meeting Priestess Miriam I’d been on a walk with Robert Florence of Cemetery Voodoo Tours. Florence is the author of New Orleans Cemeteries and City of the Dead, two authoritative books about how New Orleans has dealt with human mortality unlike anywhere else in the USA. He is also one of New Orleans top-rated guides. His ancestors also happen to be buried in New Orleans’ St Louis Cemetery #1.
We had spent hours in the St Louis Cemetery #1, established in 1789 when the Spanish government still ruled New Orleans, and is the city’s oldest cemetery still in existence.
The trip to the cemetery turned out to be one of the most fascinating things to do in New Orleans.
By the late 18th century, New Orleans’ great St Louis cathedral needed more space in which to bury its parishioners. The city had grown from a colonial backwater French town into the new country’s greatest commercial cosmopolitan city after New York.
When Napoleon sold Louisiana to the USA in 1803 to help fund his empire building in Europe, New Orleans subsequently became the gateway city to the vast new land acquisition, replete with untapped wealth and lots of room for new settlers.
An earlier established cemetery, St Peter Street Cemetery was made redundant due to overcrowding in 1788 when over 80% of New Orleans burnt to the ground and approximately 1,200 people were killed.
A new cemetery was created in boggy ground near the Basin St canal, the St Louis Cemetery #1. There are three St Louis Cemeteries around New Orleans today, but #1 is by far the most famous and most centrally located.
St Louis Cemetery
St Louis Cemetery #1 is the city’s prime burial ground. Many of the city’s most famous citizens are interred there, almost all above ground.
New Orleans’ marshlands mostly prevent the dead from burial six feet under. Bodies in shallow graves have a tendency to rise up out of sodden earth after a hurricane or severe flood.
Consequently New Orleans’ cemeteries are an assembly of tightly packed mausoleums. This is the widely accepted explanation for above ground burial. The real reason was lack of space and the Catholic Church’s prohibition of cremation.
Resourceful morticians solved the problem of overcrowding the mausoleums by devising a uniquely New Orleans’ solution to the problem.
The corpses are placed in wooden coffins, stuffed into the mausoleum for a traditionally allotted period of one year and one day, by which time the remains have ‘cooked’ in New Orleans’ sultry heat and been rendered into ash and bone, the wood almost completely rotted. The mausoleum is reopened after the officially tallied 366 days have passed.
The wooden remnants are removed while the body’s remains are brushed to the rear of the chamber where they fall into an empty space discretely fitted to the back of the mausoleum thereby leaving the now empty shelf free for another corpse, an efficient though somewhat gruesome disposal of the dead.
New Orleans voodoo adherents honour their dead. Having evolved from a mixture of African animism, Catholicism and Pantheism, contemporary voodoo sanctifies life in equal measure to death.
Voodoo as practiced by Priestess Miriam reflects contemporary society’s attitude towards laissez-faire belief systems with a lot of New Age influences.
Borrowing like a magpie from most of the world’s main religions, her voodooism spreads the word via simple messages about love, eternal truth and the holy spirits.
She also tells fortunes, spruiks natural healing and travels the world helping set up other voodoo chapters. Her latest project has been establishing a Russian branch of her temple.
One of the most famous tombs in St Louis Cemetery #1 is the Voodoo Queen’s, Marie Catherine Laveau.
Laveau was a spiritual healer of African ancestry. Word of her expertise with herbal remedies combined with her sympathetic nature (and smart business acumen) spread like a Mississippi flood throughout New Orleans where she was a celebrated figure until her death in 1881 aged 80.
Her exact birth date is unknown but it’s reckoned she was born in New Orleans in 1801. Like so many New Orleans’ celebrated figures, Marie Laveau’s life is a riddle of fact and fiction. She was a hairdresser, a liquor importer (bootlegger) and brothel owner.
She is now New Orleans’ most famous Voodoo Queen and her tomb in the St Louis Cemetery #1 is the most visited.
Offerings of food and drink are constantly left at her mausoleum, keeping the cemetery maintenance workers busy cleaning up the detritus.
Florence disparaged the fast food offerings as an insult to her memory and complained that people had no sense if they thought fried chicken would honour her memory, ‘It just attracts rats,’ he said.
His comments about the actor Nicholas Cage’s tomb were equally critical. The Cage mausoleum is an ostentatious pyramid very unfitting stylistically when compared to the neo-Classical edifices surrounding it.
Cage made a film in New Orleans, became infatuated with the place and decided he would be buried there. Florence commented that ‘He bought a number of homes here, too many by all accounts, made bad investments, sold some of them but kept this silly tomb.’
Having spent hours on a fascinating walk amongst the living dead of the St Louis Cemetery #1and in the company of an authentic Voodoo Priestess, I can honestly say there’s more fiction than fact surrounding the reality of doing voodoo for a day in New Orleans but the facts are a hell of a lot more interesting.
Tom Neal Tacker visited New Orleans as a guest of the New Orleans CVB.
Discover New Orleans
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is approximately 19 kilometres west of the city’s downtown and adjoining French Quarter. Most major USA-based airlines offer frequent connections to New Orleans from their hub airports.
The hotel Le Richelieu is an historic boutique hotel ideally located at the eastern and more peaceful residential end of the French Quarter, very close to the French Market and numerous cafes, restaurants and shops.
Unusual for New Orleans’ small hotels it boasts a large swimming pool and garden. Rooms are decorated in 19th century period style, a mix of French and Spanish neo-Classical furnishings with contemporary flourishes.
For an extended vacation around North America, here are some destination pairing suggestions.