WHERE I'M WALKING: Lafayette Cemetery No. 2, established about 1850 after serving as an informal burial ground for some years. Situated on Washington Avenue at South Saratoga Street, the cemetery is less well-known than its popular older sister, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, in the Garden District. Both are named for the town in which they were founded — the city of Lafayette, which was absorbed by New Orleans in 1852. Lafayette No. 2 is a municipal cemetery managed by the city, as opposed to Catholic cemeteries maintained by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Society and benevolent association tombs are plentiful here.
WHY I'M HERE: With Halloween and All Saints’ Day on the horizon, a walk in one of the city’s older cemeteries seems like a marvelous idea. In the years that I have been tomb walking in late October, I have learned how very different each cemetery is from the next. Whether it’s the neighborhood that imparts the personality (compare the Garden District where Lafayette No. 1 is located to Central City for Lafayette No. 2) or the architectural styles of the tombs that stand within, the city’s graveyards never disappoint.
SCENE ON THE STREET: I take a friend along to visit Lafayette No. 2 on a Sunday morning and we enter through the iron arch that spells out the name of the cemetery, which occupies an entire city square. We travel the main thoroughfare, studying the names on the tombs as we go. Many are French and German, though we find it hard to decipher the older ones carved into marble that has eroded. There are others, too, but this is the final resting place of immigrants whose stone tablets identify them as a “Native of Prussia” or Westphalia or other locales across the ocean.
There are fewer family tombs here than at Lafayette No. 1, but several notable society tombs — built by and for groups that came together to provide burial assistance (and much more) for their members. Soon we happen upon the Young Men Olympian Jr. society tomb, and I look for the name of my friend, Herbert Gettridge. If Herbert were still with us — he’d be in his 90s — he’d invite us to the annual second line that his benevolent group stages at the end of September every year.
Herbert and I met not long after floodwater associated with Hurricane Katrina devastated the Lower 9th Ward home he had built by hand decades ago. A plasterer by trade, he more or less ignored the “look and leave” order that lingered in his neighborhood until May 2006, and rebuilt his home by himself, finishing in record time. I find his name hand painted on the light-colored granite at the base of the tomb.
As we explore, we can’t help but notice the condition of the tombs. The “Woodman of the World” sculpture — a stout tree trunk made of stone or cement — has fallen and crashed through the tomb’s surface. An angel has been displaced from its perch and now stands in the corner of the plot, surrounded by a cement coping. At a small society tomb (was it St Anna’s Asylum?), the marble slab covering the vaults has warped so that it bows outward, on the verge of detaching.
As I walk on, we notice something intriguing — a tomb bearing the names of two New Orleans restaurants: Sylvain (here “Silvain”) and Tujague. A few steps farther along the center aisle stands a Bruning tomb, the name of a lost seafood restaurant at the lakefront. No doubt the names are a coincidence, but they serve to remind us of the sort of multigenerational traditions that gave rise to the city’s extraordinary music, architecture, food and … cemeteries.
HOMING IN: I choose a row of five family tombs to study, all lined up against the fence on Washington Avenue next to the recently rebuilt sexton’s cottage. They’re pretty much the same in size and configuration, but the subtle differences among them give the row its appeal.
The first features a pediment embellished with stone carving built for the Lagasse family (yet another restaurant name!). It’s the final resting place of Henry Lagasse and his wife, Mathilda Dazet, both of whom were natives of France.
Next door, as close as one shotgun house to another, is the Alfortish family tomb, clad in granite boulders instead of slabs like the Lagasses’. The Alfortishes were German, as were the Spansels in the third tomb in the row (a twin of the first one, clad in granite slabs with a steeply gabled pediment).
Next in line is a second tomb of boulders, this one for the Yung family. In case the surname sounds unfamiliar, it’s an Americanized version of the German name “Jung,” as in the Jung Hotel (now under renovation on Canal Street). The row concludes with the tomb of the Degelmann family, perhaps the most weathered of the row, with its brick structure exposed. I find it curious that the only names on the marble slab are those of Joseph Degelmann (“Native of Austria”) and his son, Fredrick William, who died in 1895. Has no one in the family been buried there in more than 100 years?
WORD ON THE STREET: There are few others exploring the cemetery Sunday, so I decided to check in with Emily Ford of Laurel and Oak, whose cemetery restoration company has been working on the French society tomb in Lafayette No. 2.
"This time of year, all of us involved in cemetery preservation get calls asking us about the condition of the city-owned cemeteries and looking for quotes," Ford said. "The fact that they're in bad shape isn't the story. The story is that there is no specific budget for cemetery maintenance — it comes out of the general fund.
"We'll be electing new council members in both District A and B in a few weeks, and both districts have city-owned cemeteries in them. If someone wants to be productive, ask the candidates where they stand on funding cemetery maintenance."