Cora and I strolled the “streets” of Lafayette Cemetery during our visit two years ago. A year later I chronicled our visit to Lafayette Cemetery. Here is a revisit to that city of the dead that was founded in 1833 and to this day still welcomes new residents. This post reprises some photos from the previous posts along with some new images. Some of the images in this and the previous posts are as originally shot, either in color or monochrome. Others have been edited to depict different moods.
New Orleans’ Garden District is a historic neighborhood that dates back to 1832. In the midst of a district noted for its many historic old mansions is one of the small “cities” within New Orleans. Those are the cities of the dead, the historic cemeteries that dot the Big Easy. You can do bawdy Bourbon Street, the music clubs on Frenchman Street, go steamboatin’ on the Mississippi River and have a beignet at Cafe du Monde but if you don’t visit one of NOLA’s cities of the dead you’ve missed out on one of her most fascinating attractions.
Lafayette like NOLA’s other cemeteries is indeed a city. The buildings are the eternal homes of the departed. Since New Orleans is below sea level it was necessary to build above ground resting places. Wealth and poverty determined the size and embellishment of these everlasting homes.
The cemetery is laid out in a grid plan with “streets” or “lanes” that run at right angles forming city blocks of buildings just like many typical cities.
Once you step through the gates of the cemetery you enter a different world. It’s a stark place populated with monuments colored in doleful shades of gray, many cracked, broken and in varying stages of disrepair. The streets themselves are fractured and littered with leaves and fallen debris from crumbling monuments.
In Lafayette you can also find splashes of beauty that contrast with the gray gloom. Trees and vegetation dot the streets and decorate some of the monuments.
The leaves add color. There’s greenery that fills many of the monuments’ fissures as nature seeks to take back what is hers. It’s the irony of new life decorating the homes of the dead.
Cemeteries are not just vaults that house the dead. They can be repositories of history. They reveal the events of years, decades and centuries past. A look at the ages of the deceased in 19th century New Orleans reveals a relatively low life expectancy. Given the humid swampy environment of New Orleans the diseases that plagued New Orleans during the 19th century included cholera, smallpox, malaria and particularly yellow fever.
During the 19th century the mortality rate of New Orleans went from a low of 36 per 1,000 in the late 1820s to a high of 1 in 15 during the summer of 1853 when more than 12,000 people died of yellow fever. During bad times the wealthy had the means to pack up and head for safer climes. Not so for those of lesser means. Yellow fever particularly ravaged immigrants, children, laborers, and the poor (some things never change).
While one can walk the grounds of NOLA’s cemeteries and be fascinated by the various tombs and the stories behind them I recommend finding a good tour guide who can uncover many more stories locked in those buildings.
Lafayette Cemetery is the resting place of Judge John Howard Ferguson, the judge in the famous Plessy versus Ferguson, a case that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court and established the concept of separate but equal. There are graves of Civil War dead with epitaphs describing the place where they perished. The Karstendiek Tomb located in the Lafayette Cemetery served as the inspiration for Lestat’s tomb in the film An Interview with the Vampire.
Above, two views of the same image. As shot on the left and color edited on the right.
Of the many graves and inscriptions that we saw perhaps the one that touched me the most was that of Mabel L. Shaw (below). During her brief 46 years (1872 – 1918) on Earth she was remembered as a woman who “never did a mean act nor said an unkind word”