Christian Heeb / Alamy

Unveiling the refurbished tomb of New Orleans' 'Voodoo queen'

It's just a coincidence that the restoration of Marie Laveau's crypt was finished in time for Halloween

New Orleans plans to unveil the refurbished tomb of Marie Laveau on Friday after a rough year for the “Voodoo queen’s” monument, which according to local lore, can grant wishes and cure the sick.

In December of 2013, a vandal covered the tomb in pink latex paint. Then, the Archdiocese of New Orleans pressure washed the structure, chipping away the original plaster and brick in the process. That came after decades of people kicking and drawing on the structure for luck, which caused the tomb to deteriorate slowly.  

Now it will re-open to visitors on Halloween, said Amanda Walker, director of the local non-profit Save Our Cemeteries that spearheaded the restoration effort.

It “just fell into place. I think it’s interesting,” Walker said laughing.

Halloween is high season for the New Orleans voodoo industry. The staff at Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo, a shop in the city's famed French Quarter selling voodoo accoutrements and souvenirs, declined to be interviewed, saying Halloween is their “busiest time of the year.”   

A rumor started decades ago that Marie Laveau would grant visitors to a tomb a wish if they drew an X on its surface, turned around three times, kicked the structure and then yelled out what they desired. Ever since, advocates for the tomb’s preservation have complained of the graffiti X’s and the damage done to the bricks that are soft with age. Voodoo practitioners say the practices have no grounding in the syncretic religion.

Restoring the structure cost $10,000. Save Our Cemeteries has so far raised all but $3,000 of the money needed to pay Bayou Preservation, which tested and recreated the plaster used on the original tomb. One of Laveau’s high-profile descendants says she will help bridge the gap in funding.

Desiree Rogers, President Barack Obama's former social secretary and current CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, which owns Ebony and Jet magazines, said she was unaware that her ancestor’s tomb had been damaged.

“Certainly the family is willing to be a part of that — the last $3,000,” Rogers told Al Jazeera, “We’re very proud of her history. Whether you believe [in Voodoo] or not, she comforted a lot of people.” New Orleans legend, although not substantiated by historical documents, holds that Laveau used her powers to cure comfort the ill. 

Rogers requested that Al Jazeera connect her with Save Our Cemeteries.

Dual faiths

Some members of the local community have blamed the Catholic Church for being careless about a tomb that a stalwart group of New Orleans Voodoo practitioners continue to venerate, said Walker.

“Our organization was, of course, very upset,” Walker said about the Archdiocese's decision to power wash the tomb. But the church has since contributed some funds to the restoration project. Neither Save Our Cemeteries nor the local Archdiocese would reveal exactly how much the church gave.

“It was significant — it was a few thousand. I can’t upset them basically — they have worked on restoration projects with us” like the Laveau project, Walker said.

New Orleans’ Archbishop Gregory Aymond told Al Jazeera that the Catholic Church is “always sorry and disappointed when any tomb is defaced.”

Aymond said that while the church “does not endorse Voodoo” or the use of Laveau’s tomb as a focal point of Voodoo practice, “we don’t believe that any tomb should be defaced. It should be respected.”

Rogers’ brother Roy Glapion, also a descendent of Laveau, said that “whether it’s your typical knucklehead or the archdiocese, we need to respect our deceased.”

Voodoo arose as a practice mixing African spiritualism, brought by slaves to North America in the early 18th century, with Catholicism.

Aymond said, “It would seem difficult — very difficult to put the two belief systems together." But Kodi Roberts, a professor of African American, New Orleans and Voodoo history at Louisiana State University says that is what Laveau practiced.

Despite a dearth of facts about her life, records show that she appeared in court in relation with her religious practices, and stories about her supposed occult powers have passed into city lore.

“It’s impossible to divorce her memory from her association with Voodoo,” Roberts said.

“The Catholic Church has always had to share its space with Voodoo, and not by choice.”

'Lipstick, money, rum'

Adam Stevenson is a guide with Spirit Tours who travels to the Marie Laveau tomb several times a week. The refurbished structure has not yet been unveiled, but Stevenson says he’s already seen two fresh X’s drawn on its surface. 

“There’s no documentation to marking her tomb prior to the middle of the 20th century,” Stevenson said, explaining that the custom is not a part of the Voodoo canon, but that many tourists get “irate” when he asks that they refrain from drawing X’s on the tomb. He is much happier to see people leave “offerings: lipstick, money, rum.”

Given his experience with tourists from out of town, Stevenson is not optimistic about the tomb's future.

“It’s not the people interested in history so much. There is an entertainment element to [New Orleans],” he said, referring to events like Mardi Gras, “When they see it as a theme park, that’s when things go wrong.”

But the rabblerousing is as much a part of New Orleans as Laveau herself, said Rogers, the Voodoo queen’s descendant.

“It’s a place where everyone can experience the town the way they want,” she said. “My grandmother would say, this is place where you would go out on Sunday and come home on Monday in the same dress. They don’t judge.”

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