Strolling through Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 in Central City on one of her regular walks a few weeks ago, Mary Michelet made a startling discovery.
Bricks had been knocked out of a tomb belonging to the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association, the last active group of its kind in New Orleans.
When she peered inside, Michelet saw human remains plus a shirt and jeans. The damage and the contents looked fresh, so she called the police.
Michelet said several officers arrived to peer inside the vault. They told her it looked like a possible case of grave-robbing or vandalism, but nothing worse. After talking things over outside the cemetery for a half-hour, she said, the officers left.
“There’s something totally wrong about it,” Michelet remembered thinking. “It shouldn’t be in the cemetery like that.”
The Police Department could not locate records of being called to the cemetery without more information, spokesman Tyler Gamble said.
After the police left, the tomb was still open. Only a reporter’s telephone call would prompt action from the city to cover it up.
The apparent act of vandalism revealed the sorry state of a small, city-owned cemetery at the corner of Loyola and Washington avenues that houses some of the New Orleans’ most historically significant resting places.
The most significant may be a pair of tombs for the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. Benevolent Association itself. Founded in 1884, the group provided health and burial insurance for ex-slaves, and its celebrations would help give birth to jazz.
One flier from 1900 advertises a “Grand Ball” to be thrown by the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. for the benefit of its tomb fund, featuring John Robichaux’s Imperial Orchestra. The bandleader played some of the dance music that would later evolve into what became known as jazz.
“For that 3 o’clock Quadrille it all the go, When ever it is played by the old Boy Robichaux,” the handout announces.
More than 100 years later, the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. is still in business. Longtime member Alfred “Bucket” Carter died at the age of 80 in March and was interred in Lafayette Cemetery No. 2, to great fanfare.
The Young Men Olympian Jr.’s tombs are in fact some of the best preserved in the cemetery, likely because of the group’s survival to the present day.
Elsewhere, once-magnificent Greek revival and Italianate burial structures, now chipped and broken, litter the small cemetery, which is also home to tombs for the Butchers Association and the French Society of Jefferson.
The city owns and is responsible for maintaining the grounds of the cemetery, which was founded around 1850 in what was then the independent city of Lafayette.
For the New Orleans of today, said Amanda Walker, executive director of the nonprofit group Save Our Cemeteries, many of these resting places “are at the bottom of the list. … They sort of get to it when they get to it. It’s (a matter of) money.”
After a reporter called the city’s Department of Property Management about the vandalism at the Young Men’s Olympian Jr. vault, a handful of bricks with loose-looking masonry were quickly put in place to cover the hole.
Facilities Maintenance Administrator John Scott said that for concerned citizens like Michelet, their first call should be to him.
As for Michelet’s concern that there might have been something wrong beyond vandalism in the cemetery, state Assistant Attorney General Ryan M. Seidemann said “there is nothing visible that suggests foul play to me” in photographs of the broken tomb.
Seidemann is on call when remains are exposed, from vandalism or weather, in cemeteries throughout the state. While jeans may at first glance seem to be unusual resting clothes, he said, they were in fact common in mid- to late-20th-century burials.
“I hope to be buried in my jeans some day,” Seidemann said. “If I gotta be stuck in something for eternity, let’s let it be comfortable.”
On Friday, Michelet said she had found more broken vaults and what she described as a “voodoo candle.” She remains alarmed about what is happening in the cemetery, and she believes the city should do more to protect it.
The Young Men’s Olympian Jr.’s tomb is now in one piece. Most of the rest of the cemetery, however, is in a dilapidated state, in stark contrast to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District, half a dozen blocks down Washington Avenue.
“There’s less money on this end of Washington Avenue,” Walker explained.
On May 1, a man with a weed whacker was cutting grass on the river side of Lafayette No. 2. He laughed when he was asked if he works for the city.
In fact, Barry Grzych, who lives in Metairie, was keeping up his family’s plot on his own initiative. He called the cemetery’s poor state “ridiculous.”
“If this would be a cemetery that the tourists would come and see, it would be immaculate like the one down there by Commander’s Palace,” said Grzych, referring to Lafayette No. 1. “But tourists don’t come here. (The city) said heck with it.”
Grzych said he understands the city’s reluctance to spend money on the dead when so many of the living are in need. But he wishes someone would cut the grass every once in a while.
“I’m about the only one left,” he said, looking at the Grzych family plot. “After I’m gone, I don’t know who’s going to take care of it.”