By Jonathan Kaminsky
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - New Orleans' oldest cemetery will soon be closed to visitors without an official escort or familial ties to the deceased, the result of a spate of vandalism that has included the tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
Vandalism is not a new problem at Laveau's tomb and others at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, which dates to the late 1700s and is perhaps the most famous graveyard in a city whose above-ground burial plots are among its defining characteristics.
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But the defacement, which includes Xs written in marker on the Laveau tomb as part of a local ritual for good luck that appears to have been encouraged by unofficial tour guides, has accelerated in recent months, said Sarah McDonald, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which owns the cemetery.
"It became apparent that we needed to take some action to protect the sanctity of the space, as well as the historic nature of the cemetery," she said.
In one particularly egregious incident last year, someone broke into the cemetery and painted the entire Laveau tomb pink, triggering a tedious restoration, McDonald said.
Under the new plan, which will take effect in March, tour operators will have to register with the archdiocese and pay fees ranging from $40 for a single visit to $4,500 for an annual pass.
The money will be spent on beefing up security at the site, with the current arrangement of security cameras and some on-site staff during open hours proving insufficient, McDonald said.
The archdiocese owns 11 other cemeteries in New Orleans, and it may choose to extend the policy to some of those sites, though the problems there have been far more limited, she said.
In addition to Laveau, a famed Creole practitioner of voodoo in New Orleans who died in 1881, the cemetery is the resting place of Homer Plessy, plaintiff in the notorious 1896 U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court ruled against him in upholding the segregationist "separate but equal" doctrine.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky; Editing by Eric Beech)