DONALDSONVILLE — Claire Safford carefully opened the rusting metal gate and peeked inside the dark interior of the Joseph Landry family tomb, which sits at the edge of the Ascension Catholic Cemetery.
She pointed out broken name plaques, crumbling interior bricks and the lack of mortar between large granite blocks used to build the tomb.
However, Safford said,she was pleased to find the overgrown weeds there the last time she visited seem to “be under control.”
Preservation of the tomb, commissioned by former Lt. Gov. Trasamond Landry, is the next order of business for the family foundation formed to care for the tomb, which was built in 1845 for the Joseph Landry family.
Born in 1752 in Grand Pre Nova Scotia, Joseph Landry was among the Acadians deported by the British in 1755, Landry family descendants say.
At age 17, Landry obtained a Spanish land grant and cleared land in Donaldsonville for his plantation.
He was appointed the first commandant of the area by the Spanish government and later served in the Revolutionary War.
Landry’s son, Trasamond, served as the state’s first lieutenant governor after the Constitution of 1845, according to Joseph Landry Foundation members.
The tomb, which towers over most of the other above-ground structures in the cemetery, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It sits next to a tomb dedicated to Civil War soldiers.
The aging stone name plaques, some written in French, are difficult to read and many lie broken on the ground.
With the help of her French-speaking mother, Safford tried to decipher the writings on one of the plaques, which was dated 1837.
The exercise piqued her curiosity about just who is buried in the tomb.
Safford knows Joseph Landry and his wife, Anne Bujol, and their son Trasamond are buried in the tomb. She said she assumes Landry’s other 13 children are among those buried in the 24 vaults inside the tomb.
“After that, we’re just not sure,” she said as she and other family members posed for photos at the tomb on Wednesday. “The church or cemetery records are not complete.”
Cemetery supervisor Anthony Marcello said the church did not start keeping plot numbers until 1977, so burials before that date are not tied to a specific tomb in the records.
Safford, her mother and other Landry relatives visited the tomb after a recent meeting of the Joseph Landry Foundation, which was formed in 2008 to preserve and restore the tomb.
They’re hoping renewed interest in Louisiana’s history during the state’s 200th birthday celebration will result in other Landry descendants joining the group’s efforts to preserve the massive tomb.
Preservation of tombs like the Landry structure are important because “they contain the history of a community,” according to Angie Green, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries, a preservation group in New Orleans.
Once gone, she said, they can never be replaced.
“A cemetery represents the kept history of a locality,” she said.
Once gone, Green said, old tombs can never be replaced.
Landry descendant Mary Ellen Stinski, the newly elected president of the family foundation, said the historical significance of the tomb starts with Joseph Landry, who served as a Louisiana senator and representative.
His son, Trasamond Landry, had the tomb built and moved his father’s remains there, Stinski said.
In documents filed by the Louisiana Office of Tourism asking the tomb be added to the National Register of Historic Places, it is described as a “two-stage monument with two Doric pilasters on each face and a massive diagonally set pier on each corner.”
Four large urns sit atop the tomb, and on the second stage of the monument sits a granite cube with a four-plaster temple front on each face.
“The Landry Tomb is significant on the state level in the area of architecture as one of the most outstanding extant examples of antebellum Louisiana funerary architecture,” the document said.
According to Stinski’s research, the monument, which is more than 20 feet tall, was designed by James Dalkin, who also designed the Old State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge.
Stinski, who lives in Iowa, said the tomb “was a fitting tribute to an outstanding American family” and deserves continued attention.
Stinksi invited preservationist Mike Trinkley, president of the Chicora Foundation in North Carolina, to recommend ways to preserve the tomb.
She presented an overview of his 2009 recommendations during the recent foundation meeting.
Trinkley recommended the group follow historical preservation standards set forth by the secretary of the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., which “emphasize retaining the historic materials of property, and only intervening for the purpose of stabilizing, consolidating and conserving that which is necessary to maintain the integrity of the structure,” Stinski said in her presentation.