In traditional Christian cemeteries in America, the bodies are buried facing east; the feet are pointed toward the east and the head to the west. Positioning graves this way actually started as a pagan ritual, so the dead would face the rising sun, but it continued through the years based on the biblical claim that the second coming of Christ would be from the east.
While many modern and secular burial grounds have abandoned this strict layout in favor of whatever’s the most efficient use of space, it’s common to see the east-west orientation in traditional Judeo-Christian cemeteries. What is quite uncommon is to see all the plots positioned “backwards,” oriented north-south instead.
In fact, it’s believed that St. Joseph’s in Rayne is the only Christian cemetery in the U.S. where the graves are facing the “wrong way.” This apparent error is all the more noticeable at this Louisiana cemetery, where the crypts, like many in the flood-prone state, are installed above-ground. The odd claim to fame even got St. Joseph’s “Wrong Way” Cemetery a mention in Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
The reasons for the north-south orientation aren’t entirely clear. Some locals say the grave digger might have misunderstood the instructions, making a 90-degree mistake. This could have happened after the cemetery was relocated in the late-19th century, when the entire town was moved five miles to the north to be near the new railroad line.
In 1880, the main line of the Louisiana Western Railroad bypassed the settlement of Pouppeville, as it was then named. A station was built and the town was shifted north and renamed for a railroad employee, B. W. L. Rayne. A commonly accepted explanation for the north-south cemetery is that the graves were mislaid after the move, and by the time the mistake was discovered too many people had already been reburied, so it was left that way.
Whatever the history, the town isn’t shying away from its quirky claim to fame. The Ripley’s Believe It or Not article that features St. Joseph’s “Wrong Way” Cemetery is on display in the lobby of the Rayne Chamber of Commerce.