**Update (2/15): The Herb Import Company is not admitting visitors to Odd Fellows Rest due to new, ongoing restoration efforts within the cemetery. Organizers have expressed interest in reopening the cemetery to visitors after the completion of their work.**
New Orleans is home to some singularly distinctive graveyards; from the infamous St. Louis cemeteries No.1 and 2, to the Metairie, to the peculiar collection of prosthetic limbs at St. Roch. But on the corner of Canal Street and City Park Avenue, hidden behind lock and key and a high surrounding wall, is perhaps its most haunting: the abandoned Odd Fellows Rest Home.
Built in 1847 as the final resting place of members of the Grand Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, it has long since been allowed to fall into disrepair and neglect. There is no known current owner, and it’s off limits to the general public. But there is secret way in, with a hush-hush passcode that the old members of the Odd Fellows would have surely approved of.
To give it its full name, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows is a fraternal organization drawn up along similar lines to the Masons. Nowhere near as popular or as infamous, they nevertheless claim a long history dating back to the 15th century. Arranged around guilds for tradesmen with unusual or odd professions, the secret society prospered particularly in the United Kingdom throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Odd Fellowship spread to Baltimore in 1819 and soon flourished. More progressive than the Freemasons (it was the first society open to both men and women), Odd Fellows halls, with their distinctive symbol of three chained links, and the initials FLT (Friendship, Love, and Truth) sprung up all over the continent. By the First World War membership in the society was at its peak, with around three million estimated members worldwide. But as the popularity of Fraternal Lodges dwindled in the 20th century, by the late 1970s, membership went down to about 250,000. Whilst still active today, the Odd Fellows hold none of the capacity for social reform and benevolent care that they did during the period when their cemetery was built in New Orleans.
Most of the Odd Fellows Lodge Halls in the US have been sold off and re-appropriated for commercial use, or simply left abandoned. The hall on Canal Street that was part of the New Orleans cemetery is no exception. Where once Odd Fellows gathered to hold wakes for their recently buried comrades, there is now the Herb Import Company, a progressive establishment catering for all your “herbal, detox, and speciality tobacco needs.” But the Herb Import Company also provides the secret way into the crumbling graveyard beyond. The passcode is, suitably for a cemetery, a bunch of flowers. Go into the Herb Company and express your wish to pay your respects, and the gates will be unlocked for you. You will also be given a matchbook with a phone number on it, which you can call to be let out.
Once inside the Odd Fellows rest home, it is indeed a magical place. Secluded from the outside by a high wall, you will likely have the dilapidated cemetery to yourself. As with the St. Louis No.1, all the tombs are above ground, to protect against the floods and swamps of Louisiana. Long rows of vaults are crumbling and many have been emptied. Trees have grown up and around rusted iron fencing, and countless gravestones lie broken and in ruins. Collapsing marble receiving vaults lie next to disintegrating cast iron family mausoleums, all adorned with the Odd Fellows three ringed symbol.
One of the largest mausoleums is for a group of the Society called the Howards. Founded by John Howard whose likeness looks down on the gravesite, it was a collective of young men in New Orleans who provided emergency help during the many yellow fever epidemics in the city, and who died for it. The most unusual grave took the shape of a large rusted safe. With no name on it, and the combination lost to history, the story of who left it there, and who might be in it, remains a mystery.
Another of the exposed vaults is for an Anson Jerauld Fairchild (oldest son), born 1843 and who died at the age of 18 years and 10 months fighting with Company B Crescent Regiment of the Louisiana Volunteers. His family took great care to spell out precisely his unfortunate early death, carving onto the marble tablet: “He fell exhausted on the Bloody field of Shiloh, Sunday April 6th, 1862, fighting for his Country’s Liberty.” Just one of the thousands of Odd Fellows who lie forgotten and unremembered at their Rest Home on Canal Street, New Orleans.