We visit Lafayette Cemetery #1 twice daily as part of our Garden District tour, but if you want to further explore this treasure on your own, this guide will help you learn more about New Orleans’ oldest city-owned cemetery.
Begin at the entrance to Lafayette Cemetery #1 on Washington Avenue.
The cemetery was established as the official cemetery for the City of Lafayette (present-day Garden District) in 1833. When the City of Lafayette was incorporated into the city of New Orleans in 1852, it became property of the city. It is still city-owned and non-denominational. Until the mid-20th Century, it was commonly called “The Washington Cemetery.” The number of people interred in this cemetery is a subject of much debate. Records have been lost or destroyed and sometimes were not well-kept in the first place. In an 1873 Times Picayune article, it was reported that “21,889 persons” were laid to rest in the cemetery. In a recent survey, “transcribing three-quarters of all legible tablets on the property, approximately 14,000 names were tallied”. We can easily say that thousands have been laid to rest here, and the cemetery holds that many stories.
Upon entering the cemetery, turn left.
As you walk along this aisle, you will become familiar with some common and interesting funerary symbols, family tombs, and the wall vaults. Notice also the large number of German names and German birthplaces noted on the tombs. This neighborhood boasted a high German population throughout the 19th century, and many of the most opulent homes in the Garden District were built with German hands.
On your right are mostly family tombs. These are the most common tombs in New Orleans, although this was not the original method of interment. It has been the most common since around 1800. The vaults, which are generally 2-3 chambers high, are used by several generations of the same family. One person is placed in the top vault, then the second one in the vault beneath it. When there is a death in the family but all the chambers are full, the cemetery workers remove the person who has been in there the longest (if it has been at least one year and one day), and pass the now-deteriorated remains down into a chamber beneath the tomb called a caveau. The new person is then laid to rest in the now empty chamber. It this way, generation after generation can be interred in the same small structure.
As you walk along this aisle, you will see some common funerary symbols:
-Broken flower (Philbert Bernard tomb): The broken stem represents the end of life.
-Draped urn (Hecker tomb): Although the Catholics did not cremate, the Romans did, so the draped urn became a classic funerary symbol. The urn containing the ashes of a dignitary of Rome would sit in a place of honor at his memorial service, with his toga and garland draped on it.
-Lamb (Stahr tomb): an indication that a child or children are interred in the vault.
The wall of interment chambers on your left are called wall vaults (sometimes these were called “oven vaults”). Wall vaults are used for three purposes:
- as a temporary resting place, until the required year-and-a-day period is up and the deceased can be put in the family tomb ,
- as a permanent tomb for one family (6-8 people),
- as an inexpensive “group tomb” for people without a family resting place.
Turn right at the end of the row of wall vaults (NOT THE END OF THE AISLE – Just the end of the wall vaults. You will be at the Esteben and Pic tomb). Soon you will come to a very large tomb on your left. This is a society tomb.
Society tombs belonged to groups or clubs which had various purposes for the living – service organizations, religious groups, immigrant groups, trade unions – and one of the benefits of membership was the members and/or their families could be interred in the society tomb after death.
After the society tomb, still on your left, see the Clark tomb. All the people listed on this closure tablet are from Scotland, Ireland, and England. Immigrants from this region were pouring into New Orleans in the 1820s and 1830s for the same reasons they moved to other American cities – famines, political problems, and religious upheaval. They settled in this area, mostly in a neighborhood adjacent to the Garden District that is still called the Irish Channel.
As you make your way along this aisle, you will see several tombs on both sides that are lower to the ground and have dirt, grass, shells, flowers, or weeds growing on them. These are called coping tombs.
Coping tombs were the solution when, for religious or personal reasons, you wanted or needed to be buried in soil but you had the misfortune of dying in New Orleans, where the water table is high and in-ground coffins have been known to float to the surface during a flood. The wall of the tomb holds in dirt, the tomb goes 2-3 feet below the ground, a casket can be lowered in, and soil can cover the casket.
The last coping tomb on the right in this row is the Whitely tomb. It has a three-fold marker and deserves special notice. Read the names and dates and you’ll learn the story of Charlotte, who died at the age of 23, 2 months after giving birth to her daughter, Clara Grace. Baby Clara died one year later.
As you continue in this aisle, notice the name “MICHEL” spelled out in New Orleans street name tiles. Variations of these charming blue-and-white tiles have been in use on New Orleans street corners since the 1880s, and occasionally show up in our cemeteries to spell out the name of a loved one.
As you continue on this path, you will see ahead of you a larger aisle with magnolia trees. Before you get to the larger aisle, you’ll see a cement tree trunk on your left and a white tomb (Family Tomb of Robert Ross) on your right.
Woodmen of the World tree trunk – WOW began as a fraternal organization and is now a major insurance company. Members paid dues and were assured a proper burial and a Woodmen of the World tree trunk marker. The cut tree symbolized the end of a life. There are tree trunks such as this one throughout the cemetery.
On the Ross tomb, you will see how poorly marble holds up in our humid climate, and several engraved flowers on the tomb. The broken or drooping flower is a classic funerary symbol, indicating the ending of a life. Different flowers have different meanings – lily for purity, rose for love and grief, chrysanthemum for honor and sympathy.
Continue till you get into the tree-lined aisle, then turn left. Make the next right (at the sign that says “Square 4 Laurel Walk”). You are now walking in the aisle closest to Coliseum Street. Walk in this aisle till you arrive at the large Poydras Orphans Rest tomb on the right.
The Poydras Orphan’s Rest was a home for orphan girls, established in 1817 when a ship of immigrants arrived in New Orleans with 20 orphaned children, whose parents had died during the grueling passage from Europe. Continue down the same aisle. At the end, you will arrive at a lovely corner with four identical tombs. This is called the Secret Garden.
The Secret Garden – This special little section is the resting place of four best friends and their families. The four boyhood pals – Palfrey, Dupuy, Griswold, And Ginder – remained lifelong friends and formed a secret club called the Quarto and, it is rumored, did secret acts of charity. They bought the corner of the cemetery, built identical tombs, and, according to legend, vowed that the last surviving friend would burn the records of the Quarto. Here they rest together forever. For more of what we’ve uncovered about the secret garden, click here.
Turn right after the secret garden (you’re on the last aisle in the cemetery), and continue on this aisle till you come to a flat-topped tomb on your right and a raised graveyard ahead of you on the right. Turn right between these. Straight ahead you will see a seated angel. Notice that the angel is holding a lowered torch in its left hand. The upside-down torch is a common classic funerary symbol, equating the ending of a life with the extinguishing of the fire.
Turn left to face the front of the raised graveyard and the broken column inscribed with C.S.A. and a crescent moon.
The McLellan family plot features a broken column, a symbol used for soldiers who died in youth, that is a memorial to their son, Charles (pictured here), who was killed in action in the American Civil War. Charles was originally laid to rest in Virginia, and after the war his family had his remains brought here. The McLellans, who were from Maine, came to New Orleans because the father was a ship chandler (supplier). All three sons who survived to adulthood fought in wars – Charles and Alden in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, and Orris (at age 63!) in World War 1 in the French Foreign Legion. Alden died at the age of 84, six weeks after being struck by a truck in 1920. Since the family was from Maine and accustomed to in-ground burials, it is possible that they had this unique plot built to resemble a traditional New England graveyard.Facing the broken column, turn right, then left (you’re going down the side of the raised graveyard) and ahead a few steps to see the in-ground burial of Margaret McKeown on your right, who died at 21 years old in 1864. In-ground burials are unusual and not always advisable in the wet soil of New Orleans, but the earliest Irish and German immigrants were appalled by the custom of above-ground tombs and often chose traditional burial. As these immigrant families became more comfortable with our customs (and as discrimination against the Irish in particular encouraged assimilation), even Irish families began to build above-ground tombs. Margaret’s tomb features a weeping willow, a symbol of sorrow and mourning, and a lamb, which symbolizes innocence, gentleness, and humility. A lamb often adorns the tomb of someone who dies young.
Facing Margaret’s tomb, turn left and walk toward another large McLellan Family tomb (with even more veterans markers!), then turn right.
At the next aisle on your right, detour a bit to see two recently restored tombs (Mullen and Poelman). There are a few local companies who are passionate about authentic preservation of these tombs, and they are meticulous and respectful in their work. Notice the Celtic cross on the Mullen tomb. Obviously, the Irish got used to above-ground interment!
Back out of your detour and continue toward the center aisle (the caretaker’s building will be on your left). Turn right when you reach the middle, tree-lined aisle. On your left, go between the Gessler and Rusha tombs. Note that the Rusha tomb has closure tablets on all four sides and lists 36 names. When a closure tablet is full, the family moves it to the side of the tomb and starts a new one. This family has been bringing their loved ones to this site since 1876.
Go down the aisle you entered between the Gessler and Rusha tombs, and continue in that direction till you reach an open space. This spot, incidentally, is where a fake tomb was built for the 1999 film Double Jeopardy, starring Ashley Judd. You will turn away from the open space to make a right. Go two rows ahead (the white Scott tomb will be at the second row), and turn right again.
Look for the Earhart tomb on the right. This is the resting place of Judge Ferguson, of the landmark civil rights case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which an African-American man named Homer Plessy attempted to board a whites-only rail car in New Orleans in 1892 and was arrested. Judge Ferguson determined that the Louisiana Legislature was within its rights to discriminate by race on rail cars and the case was appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where the rule of “separate but equal” was established. Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in Brown V.
Board of Education of Topeka, Ks. In 1954, and Homer Plessy’s tomb is in St. Louis Cemetery #1 (for a guided tour of that cemetery, click here). Notice also the “no Cross, no crown” design on the Ferguson tomb. Variations on this can be seen throughout the cemetery, It represents the belief that if one does not endure the trials of life (cross), one is not entitled to the eternal reward in heaven (crown).
Facing the Earhart tomb, turn right and continue down the aisle till you reach the end. Step around to the tomb on the left at the end of the aisle (Clerc). This one has the cross and crown on the side and a draped urn on top. It also reads Mizpah on the top. Mizpah is a Hebrew word that connotes an emotional bond between people who are separated (in this case, by death). So, this tomb incorporates funerary traditions from Roman, Christian, and Hebrew cultures.
Pass the Clerc tomb. The next one on your left is J.S. Smith (also with upside-down torches). The tomb is quite impressive and although it was erected for the family of J. S. Smith, it is no wonder that the builder, Hagan, signed his name on the lower right side of the tomb. Continue on and turn left while facing Pierce.
On your right, you will see a newly-painted tomb (Karstendeick). This is the only cast-iron tomb in this cemetery, although in the Canal Street cemeteries cast-iron tombs are much more commonly seen. They were pre-fabricated at an ironworks in Philadelphia and sold by Wood & Miltenberger, a local ironworks distributor who also sold gates and fences, iron furniture, coffins, and cast iron for the balconies and galleries that give New Orleans its distinctive look. Families could pick different styles and sizes and “customize” their own tomb. Although the company advertised that the tomb materials were “designed…expressly for the South,” and would not rust, this did not prove to be true and cast iron tombs are rusting all over New Orleans, including the tomb of Mr. Miltenberger himself , who rests in Cypress Grove Cemetery.
Backtrack a bit to face the Fuller coping tomb. Walk along the right side of the Fuller tomb to the next aisle. Turn right in this aisle. Look for the E.W. Sewell tomb on the right. It tells the story of Theresa J. Murray, who lost her husband and only child (William, pictured here)in May of 1864.
Soon after you pass the Sewell tomb, the open Koenig tomb will be on the left.
The Koenig family had this tomb built but never used it. You can look in and see the shelves and the chamber beneath it, or caveau. It is deceiving however, because a foot or more of soil has filled in the caveau. It is much deeper than it looks, allowing for many family members’ remains to settle down in there through the years.
Just past the Koenig tomb, turn right to walk between the Rice and Born tombs, and then turn left. On the right you will see a tomb with a fabulous shoe on the shelf. This is a shoe that was thrown off of a float in the Muses parade. Muses, an all-women Mardi Gras krewe, decorates shoes all year to throw in one night during their very popular parade. The shoes are a coveted throw and everyone in New Orleans wants to have a “Muses shoe.” If you catch one, you will display it proudly in your home for all to see. The inhabitants of this tomb were artistic, passionate people who loved everything about New Orleans, including Mardi Gras. “Big Daddy” Gisleson was a prominent attorney, storyteller, and tour guide. His daughters Rachel and Rebecca and his grandson Geronimo join him here and family and friends bring the shoes.
Facing the tomb with the shoe, turn left and walk toward the main aisle with the trees. When you get to the tree-lined aisle, turn left. At the next aisle (which is the last one), turn right. On your right is a very large society tomb of the Chalmette Fire Company.
Chalmette Fire Company no. 23 was a volunteer fire company not in Chalmette, which is a neighboring community, but right here in the Garden District. All fire departments at the time were volunteer departments, therefore its membership were usually among the well-to-do in the city (who else but a rich man can volunteer to be a fireman?). These volunteer fire departments became social organizations, and the members raised the funds to build their society tombs. The New Orleans Fire Department Museum on Washington Avenue was the headquarters for Chalmette no.23.
Make a right turn along the side of the Chalmette tomb, and then turn left in the next aisle (at the G.C. Osburn tomb). Quite a way down on the right (7-8 tombs), notice the McKnight tomb, which has a large tree growing on it. Trees cause the most deterioration of the old tombs. Notice also the wreath near the top of this tomb. The wreath, an ancient symbol of victory, was adapted by Christians as a symbol of the victory of redemption.
Turn right after the McKnight tomb. As you continue on this aisle, notice the Hicks tomb on the left. It has a carving of two hands joined. The style of the sleeves indicates that (in traditional dress) one hand belongs to a man and one to a woman. This symbol is used when a married couple is interred in the same vault.
Further down on the left, you will see the unkempt tomb of Confederate General Harry T. Hayes. Hayes, hailed as the leader of the “Louisiana Tigers,” a fighting regiment of the Confederacy, came to New Orleans after the Civil War, received his pardon from President Johnson, and was sworn in as Sheriff of New Orleans. In 1866, he and his deputies played a prominent role in a violent race riot at the Mechanic’s Institute in New Orleans, he was removed from office, and a period known as Radical Reconstruction was ushered into Louisiana, resulting in the Union Army occupying this region until 1877.
A few tombs past Hayes is another Koenig family tomb. We can really thank the Koenigs for enhancing our cemetery tour, as this one illustrates how many family members can go in the same tomb (38) and how long the same tomb can be used (1855-2013 so far). The original closure tablet was moved to the side of the tomb many years ago when it was full, and a new one, which is now full, was added.
Continue in this aisle till you can’t go any further, then turn right.
On your right, notice the tiles that spell out the name of John Bartchy, a Swiss immigrant who is presumably laid to rest in this tomb. These are the same iconic tiles that spell out the street names on the corners of New Orleans streets. Either Mr. Bartchy loved these tiles (many of us do!) or his family was cutting corners, but he is one of only two in this cemetery who have their name spelled out in these blue-and-white street tiles.
Turn left in the opening after Bartchy, then right in the main aisle.
The society tomb on your right, if you look carefully at the pediment, had the letters IOOF inscribed in it, although quite worn away. This stands for Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization who has several tombs throughout the city as well as a cemetery of their own. That cemetery, however, is in such poor shape that it is not open to the public at all.
The impressive red granite tomb right after the Odd Fellows tomb is that of the Hagan-Henderson Families and was built in the 1850s by James Hagan, who was the sexton of the cemetery and in the tomb-building business himself (remember his signature on the J.S. Smith tomb). While nearly every tomb in this cemetery is made of brick and therefore subject to deterioration from humidity, vibrations, people, and the plants and trees that grow in and on them, this tomb still looks brand-new. There is no natural rock in the soil around New Orleans, so all rock has to be imported. Mr. Hagan, being in the business, must have gotten a good deal on some granite.
The very next tomb is the impressive society tomb of the Jefferson Fire Company no. 22, another volunteer fire department. The fire engine on the pediment is the horse-drawn variety, with one end of the hose to be placed in a well, pumped through the engine, and sprayed out the other end.
At the following intersection, turn left. Immediately on your right you will see the tomb of the Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys.
Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys tomb: The society was established in 1822 to care for boys who had been orphaned or whose families could otherwise not care for them. If a boy died while in residence at the home, he would be interred in this tomb. The society, which is still an orphanage for boys in New Orleans today, has always been known for compassionate and dedicated superintendents, and we can see from the inscriptions that one of the superintendents is interred here with the boys. The society’s operational name today is the Waldo Burton Home for Boys, because in the 1920s, a lumber magnate, William Burton, built their large currently-used facility to honor his late son, Waldo. Visitors to the tomb often leave toys for the boys who currently live at the home (who are ages 6-15), and a small group of neighbors decorates the tomb every Christmas.
Go around the left side of the Orphan Boys tomb and proceed up that aisle. On your right, you will see the military marker of Raymond Joseph Parks , who was killed in World War II seventeen days before his 19th birthday. Pass several broken tablets on your right, and soon on your left is a massive coping tomb.
New Orleans Home for Incurables tomb: The New Orleans Home for Incurables was established in 1891 by an all-female board of directors to provide compassionate services for handicapped and disabled residents of New Orleans. The board continued to operate the Home (and continued to be an all-female board) until the facility was sold to the State of Louisiana in 1979. When the state announced plans to close the home in 2011, displacing 85 residents and costing 135 employees their jobs, the board re-convened and leased the facility and operates it today as Hainkel Home. Sometimes people lived in the Home for Incurables for their entire lives, and were laid to rest in this large coping tomb.
Facing the Incurables tomb, turn right and continue the direction you were going. Turn left at the next opening (there will be a cast-iron fence around the D.R. Godwin tomb on your right). Notice the eternal flame motif in the fence – another funerary symbol – and the small statue of a weeping woman in front of you. The urn and image of a weeping woman have both been funerary symbols since ancient times, and this statue was at one time on top of the F. Zimmerman tomb next to it. She fell off the tomb in the 1990s and landed in her current spot.
Turn left at the weeping woman and proceed toward the main (tree-lined) aisle. You will pass the Naffe tomb on the left. 22 year-old Joseph J. Naffe Jr. was killed in World War II and rests here with his family.
Turn left in the tree-lined aisle. You will go again past the Destitute Orphan Boys tomb, and turn right in the main cemetery aisle.
5 tombs after the large red granite Hagan-Henderson tomb, observe the tomb of William F. Klein, who died in the Chalmette sugar refinery explosion in 1907.
Further down on the left is the heartbreaking tomb. Read the closure tablet and learn how the Ferguson family lost three children in two days – Sercy, Mary, and Edwin – to yellow fever in 1878. Yellow Fever took the lives of 20.000 people throughout the Mississippi Valley from St. Louis to New Orleans during the “Saffron Scourge of 1878,” among the three Ferguson Children.
2 or 3 tombs past the tomb of the children, on the same side, notice the Freudenstein tomb’s broken flower.
Proceed out to the main entrance. You made it! Thank you for showing an interest in this treasure of New Orleans, and come again soon!
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