On a splendidly warm winter day in 1998, while driving to his brother's house, Ted Brennan decided to detour through Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery here. A wealthy restaurateur, healthy and happy, Brennan felt an acute appreciation for life that sunny afternoon, and he thought of his parents, long deceased. Turning into the cemetery, he drove to his family's granite tomb, an above-ground vault in which he too eventually will be interred.

Right away he saw that the tall marble statue outside the tomb was missing.

"I felt like throwing up," he said. "When you see something like that gone, you're hoping against hope that maybe the cemetery is doing maintenance on it, cleaning it or something. But deep down, you know it's been stolen."

Thieves indeed had taken it, which appalled Brennan. And what he and other New Orleanians have learned in the months since is even more distressing.

In a city given to memorializing its departed souls with a flourish--where for two centuries the dead usually have been laid to rest above ground, often in mausoleums of such elaborate design that many old cemeteries here are considered architectural treasures--police uncovered an alleged theft ring. They said 250 stolen funerary ornaments worth nearly $1 million, including Brennan's statue, have turned up in the hands of some of the French Quarter's toniest antiques dealers and their clients.

The allegation that respected purveyors of fine culture were dispatching street thieves to heist urns, statues, benches and other valuable artifacts from New Orleans's revered "cities of the dead" has scandalized local high society and historic preservation circles. Police said they suspect about a half-dozen French Quarter antiques dealers knowingly purchased stolen funerary ornaments and sold them to customers who, in some cases, were aware of the thefts. So far, two prominent dealers and a collector have been charged with felony possession of stolen goods.

Outside the Brennan tomb, a nearly life-size sculpture of Mother Cabrini, the first American citizen to be canonized, had stood for decades, commissioned in Italy by Brennan's mother after his father's death in 1955. Ted Brennan was just 7 then. His mother explained to him that his father's favorite charity had been the Mother Cabrini Nursery, near his popular restaurant in the French Quarter. Now Brennan, 51, runs the restaurant. Like the tomb, he said, it gives him a sense of family permanence.

The statue offered the same comfort.

Brennan said his late mother paid $5,000 for the Mother Cabrini sculpture in 1955, but having an identical one crafted in Italy today would cost $45,000.

"It's not the money," he said. "I mean, these tombs are almost like extensions of our homes. And when I found out antique dealers were involved, it was really upsetting. You feel like nothing is sacred when something like that happens."

Along Royal Street, the French Quarter's antiques row, and in the elegant, Old World parlors of the city's preservation groups, the same anger is palpable.

"Shock, disappointment, disgust," said Louise Fergusson, director of Save Our Cemeteries. "New Orleans is a small community, in a way. A lot of people know some of the people who have been accused of this, and it's very disturbing."

To understand their sense of violation and betrayal, consider New Orleans's historically intimate relationship with its deceased. Because this part of Louisiana is below sea level and the water table is high, it always has been more efficient to inter the dead above ground, leaving them closer physically, and thus spiritually, to the living. More than 40 cemeteries here date to the 19th century and before, and they resemble scaled-down metropolises--miniature cities of granite and marble reflecting ancient, medieval and Renaissance architectural styles.

"New Orleans' cemeteries are like New Orleans: they swing between destitution and opulence but always with style," wrote poet Andrei Codrescu in his foreword to "Elysium," a book of evocative New Orleans cemetery photographs. While many of the dead are entombed in plain mausoleums or grand ones in decay, thousands of the more fortunate are interred in Byzantine temples and ornate sarcophagi, in pyramids guarded by sphinxes, in Gothic cathedrals and Italian villas, and beneath Greek and Roman columns.

"The keepers of the graves are mostly old women these days, who remember their mamere and papere and gran'mere and gran'pere," wrote Codrescu. "Their own resting places wait for them in the family crypts. . . . Great care is taken in planning which berth to lie on. Ending up next to a disliked relative can sour eternity. The grave keepers listen to the bones, remember, plot, pray, and scrub."

One of the accused antiques dealers, Peter Patout, 43, whose Bourbon Street home has been featured in House Beautiful, Town & Country and similar magazines, belongs to a wealthy sugar-growing family whose forebears arrived here in the 1820s. After the alleged conspiracy became public, he declared his innocence at a news conference in front of an ancestor's tomb in the 145-year-old St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.

"I am astonished and outraged at the easy assumptions being made regarding my integrity," he told reporters.

He is charged with six counts of possessing stolen goods worth more than $500, each count punishable by up to 10 years in prison upon conviction.

"He's a respected, legitimate dealer," Patout's attorney, Arthur Lemann, said last week after a court hearing. "He did acquire some items, but didn't think they were stolen. He buys and sells antiques. This stuff doesn't come wrapped in cellophane with a manufacturer's seal."

A lawyer for antiques dealer Aaron Jarabica, 41, said his client, charged with one count, also is innocent, having acquired a stolen item in good faith. Roy Boucvalt, 55, a New Orleans physician, will offer the same defense at his trial, his attorney said.

Boucvalt, a connoisseur of fine antiques, owns the historic Boucvalt House on St. Louis Street, a circa-1840 Greek Revival townhouse, delicately restored, that often hosts soirees of the Junior League and other New Orleans society clubs. He is accused of two counts of possessing stolen property worth more than $500. And like the others, he also is charged with conspiracy to commit theft.

One Friday in February 1998, a worker at a cemetery where several thefts had occurred grew suspicious when he noticed a white van cruising among the mausoleums. He jotted down the license plate number and gave it to police. Because the worker hadn't witnessed a crime, detectives decided not to immediately question the van's owner, but to await his return to the cemetery. They hoped to catch him in the act of stealing. And on April 4 that year, they did.

Detective Frederick Morton said the thief identified two accomplices, and all of them agreed to cooperate with investigators. The story they told, when it eventually became public, left the genteel devotees of New Orleans culture aghast.

According to Morton, the thieves said they had started out by heisting small urns from cemeteries and peddling them in antiques shops for drug money. Eventually, some dealers urged them to bring in larger, more valuable items, the thieves said, and even directed them to certain cemeteries and taught them what to look for. In time, Morton said, detectives retrieved 250 urns, statues and benches from about 35 antiques dealers and the parlors and courtyards of several well-heeled customers.

"We call our cemeteries 'cities of the dead' for a reason," said Patricia Brady, an official of the Historic New Orleans Collection, a preservation group. "These are communities of our ancestors, and we really like to go there and be with them. So these people who steal things, they're not stealing from the dead. They're stealing from us. We need these things. The city needs these things."

Though the replacement costs for many of the larger objects would run in the high five figures, Morton said, the antiques dealers paid relatively paltry sums for them, then sold them, or offered them for sale, at $1,000 to $6,000 apiece. Of the 35 or so dealers, police suspect about a half-dozen took part in the alleged conspiracy. Morton said authorities decided last month that they had enough evidence to prosecute Patout, Jarabica and Boucvalt. After being formally charged, they were released on personal recognizance pending their trials.

The 250 recovered artifacts--including the Brennan family's Mother Cabrini statue, with one of its hands broken off and missing--are being held in an evidence warehouse.

The thieves have identified all of the items as stolen and were able to remember the locations of most of the tombs from which ornaments were taken, Morton said. But they could not recall where some of the artifacts rightfully belong in the vast "cities of the dead," and no family members have reported them missing.

"The sad thing is, they may never be claimed," Brennan said. "Some of these families have died off."

CAPTION: A statue stolen from a New Orleans cemetery.

CAPTION: Police detectives unload one of hundreds of cemetery ornaments stolen from New Orleans's "Cities of the Dead."