Who was the first person buried in Metairie Cemetery? Was he famous?
Dr. James Ritchie was the first person interred in the newly created Metairie Cemetery, but he was not famous. It was 1873, just one year after owners of the new cemetery were granted a charter in May 1872. Dr. Ritchie's small, unimposing tomb can be found along the cemetery's Central Avenue.
Ritchie's granite tomb has the following inscription: "A native of Madison Co. Kentucky and for upward of 30 years a practicing physician of New Orleans." He died here at age 67, and his epitaph is memorable: "More bent to raise the wretched than to rise."
Metairie Cemetery is the only cemetery in America that was converted from a racetrack: the Metairie Race Course. It was here, in 1854, that the exciting races took place between Lexington, a Kentucky horse, and Lecompte, a Louisiana horse. The 1 1/16-mile oval track on which these and other horses raced became the main road in the new city of the dead: Metairie Avenue.
Ritchie's tomb is not the oldest one in the cemetery. That honor belongs to Barthelemi Duverje. His tomb on Lake Avenue originally was built in Algiers, where the wealthy landowner had his own private cemetery. It started as a burial place for his slaves, but grew until it occupied almost a city block. Surrounded first by a wooden fence and then by a brick wall, the cemetery also had a chapel. Duverje's descendents also built a small house for the cemetery keeper. Duverje was buried in a tomb built in the early 19th century of granite from Massachusetts. It was such a pleasant place that the family had a reunion there each year on All Saints' Day. After Mass in the chapel, they gathered in the cemetery for a picnic.
By 1915, however, Algiers was growing completely around the Duverje cemetery. Duverje's grandson made a decision to move the family tomb to Metairie Cemetery. Duverje's tomb, along with 400 bodies in the family's cemetery, was moved the next year, and the chapel was demolished. In time, the cemetery was made into a playground, and a little marker indicating Barthelemi Duverje Place is a reminder of one of the first citizens of Algiers.
There are many people buried in Metairie Cemetery who are not famous, but it has its share of those who are. Ten Louisiana governors rest under the oaks, and 12 New Orleans mayors have joined them. Four chief justices of the Louisiana State Supreme Court also are interred there. Civil War generals and monuments to those who gave their lives for the Confederacy figure prominently.
Other famous people buried in this cemetery include Anthony Monteleone, a French Quarter shoe store owner whose descendants operate the Monteleone Hotel on Royal Street. There's also Louis Grunewald, whose Grunewald Hotel became the Roosevelt Hotel then the Fairmont Hotel and is once again the Roosevelt.
Other men interred here had humble beginnings and rose to fame, including Louis Prima, the Italian singer and trumpeter; Al Copeland, founder of Popeyes Chicken; and Harry Lee, the longtime sheriff of Jefferson Parish.
There are also more kings buried in Metairie Cemetery than in Westminster Cathedral. More than 50 kings of Carnival have their final resting place at Metairie Cemetery.