Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn.
Lafayette Cemetery # 1 in New Orleans’ Garden District proved unexpected fertile ground for fresh ways to look at life.
Stepping off the St. Charles Streetcar at Washington Avenue, my husband Tom and I walked one block towards the river, debating whether to wander around the famed resting place on our own, or avail ourselves of a guide. Reaching a corner, we overheard a woman speaking to a small cluster of people outside the Still Perkin’ café. She explained the payment policy for her tour—there was no set price, you simply gave her what you thought the experience was worth. I glanced at Tom and he shrugged his shoulders in a ‘why not’ gesture. While our investment in time was hardly high stakes it proved an immensely informative and enjoyable ‘gamble.’
Falling in with Sarah and her small entourage, we learned the Garden District was once the domain of the Livaudais Plantation. In the early 19th century, land here was sold off in parcels to wealthy “Americans” from the Northeast. The captains of industry arriving to the Gulf did not want to live in the French Quarter with the Creoles, whom they looked down upon.
“People don’t really necessarily like to admit it, but they did empty out quite a few jails and insane asylums and hospitals in France to populate Louisiana,” Sarah said with a smile. “When those settlers came over in the 18th century, they had to contend with the terrain. They needed to make sidewalks out of planks of boards because the mud was so high, and deal with the fact that they were living on a swamp, which is a feeding ground for mosquitoes. Yellow fever was rampant throughout the city, and then you also had cholera, smallpox, and dysentery.”
“Some could argue that that’s why New Orleanians live every day like it’s their last, and that’s why we enjoy all the eccentricities in life, and why we’re totally over the top, and talk too much,” she declared. “We do all of this because of how hard all the conditions were. You had to live every day like it was your last, because with that mortality rate, you knew that pretty soon it might be your time, and so you’d better enjoy everything while you have it.”
Entering the ornate wrought-iron gates of Lafayette Cemetery # 1, we followed Sarah down a tree-lined sidewalk lined between rows of marble crypts. She told us that initially the settlers of New Orleans had tried to bury their dead below ground but they soon saw that bodies were coming up pretty quickly.
“After hurricanes or heavy storms the caskets and sometimes bones would start to come out of the ground because of the extremely high water table,” she said. “So they decided that they would take after the medieval cemeteries in Europe, typically France and Spain, and began using above-ground family tombs.”
Sarah said that traditionally there were multiple spots available in these tombs. A deed was made to the cemetery sexton making him aware of the need to use the space for future interments. When the tomb was opened to accommodate the next family member, they realized the first had decomposed in a short time. The bodies essentially cremated themselves, which is one of the reasons why they got nicknamed oven tombs or oven vaults.
Sarah went on to explain that the New Orleanians adhered to the traditional European ‘year-and-a-day’ mourning process, which calls for mourning a deceased loved one for exactly one year, observing very strict customs such as wearing black and cover mirrors with black shawls. On the 366th day, mourners emerged from their grief, able to enjoy life again. The “year-and-a-day” mourning tradition became a practical timetable for natural cremation and the rule of law as when a tomb could be opened up to accommodate another body.
We noticed that lush green vegetation sprouted from most of the stone crypts of Lafayette Cemetery # 1.
“Resurrection ferns are a tradition, and affiliated with death,” Sarah said. “It’s very symbolic, especially in the South. You give them to people when a loved one passes away. A lot of people say that they can only grow where they’re able to feed off the nutrients of dead bodies. The seeds are able to get into the open vaults in family tombs, and then when the tombs are closed back up, the fern inevitably wants to find the sun, and they grow from inside the tombs out into the sunlight.”
We came upon a tomb poetically strewn with Mardi Gras beads and Sarah explained the New Orleans ‘second line’ tradition.
“A jazz funeral can be a second line event,” Sarah said. “A second line is any group of people that precedes a brass band in a parade format. The reason it’s called that is because usually the brass band plays in an actual line, like they would in a marching band, so that’s the first line. The second line is the procession of dancers.”
“Usually you have either a grand marshal, or someone that’s an executor of the services, and they march in very front,” she continued. “Quite often nowadays, they are African-American women dressed in black, very ornate dress suits, and they usually have sashes denoting what social aid or pleasure club they belong to.”
She said that the social aid, pleasure clubs and benevolent associations are usually neighborhood groups or individuals who have banded together over some sort of common ground, such as dance troupes, or women that belong to a certain club that does charitable work.
“My group is the Bearded Oysters, which is an all-women’s dance troupe,” Sarah said with a laugh. “Bearded Oysters is a euphemism for female genitalia. We dress up in all white with cone bras designed with oyster shells. Our skirts are tutus. A beard on our face is a requirement. Each ‘Oyster’ makes her own merkin. A merkin is underwear with fake hair attached. You will see bright blue merkins, black, brown, orange, and blonde. Sometimes you will see one made of Oysters or feathers. And as we dance we start to lift our skirts to show off our own unique style. The young girls of New Orleans grow up seeing us do this and look up to us, which tells you of the character and humor of New Orleans women.”
Returning to the subject of a jazz funeral, Sarah went on to explain that the family members are the first in the procession to leave the church and are at its front, followed by the band, which is a brass band. She noted that quite often for funerals the bands are actually paid to be there, and that’s one way that a lot of musicians in New Orleans can make extra money.