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.
“The band usually plays songs like ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ ‘A Closer Walk with Thee,’ and other traditional hymns like ‘Sometimes I’ve Heard,’” Sarah said. “The crowd usually sings along; that’s when the tears begin to flow, and people get real emotional. I will be honest, the majority of people in the crowd have found an alcoholic beverage to be drinking at that point. And the line starts to move, and people do a very stoic, leisurely stroll, and then eventually, the band starts to play more outgoing, traditional songs, and the groups start to dance.”
“Usually people choose to dance not necessarily when the music picks up, but when in themselves they find that they are overcome with emotion,” she continued. “In a joyful, kind of celebration of the deceased one’s life, they do what’s called the ‘drop step,’ which is interesting to watch. Someone is just walking along, and something happens in their mind, or they think about something that happened with the deceased one, or the music is really bringing out their emotions, and they drop very low, and at the last second they do some sort of improvisational footstep, that leads into a dance, and they’ll do that for series of moments. Then they’ll stop, keep walking, and wait till they have another feeling of that nature.”
“Sometimes this can be extremely dramatic, and sometimes it can be very casual, but there is no doubt it comes from someone being completely overwhelmed by whatever emotion they’re having at that time,” Sarah said. “It’s not necessarily that they are sad, but they are overcome with emotion, or joy, and at the last second, they’re overwhelmed, like they’re going to drop, and then start to dance.”
After the tour of Lafayette Cemetery # 1 concluded, I lingered to talk with Sarah.
“I call New Orleans my ‘boyfriend’ because ever since I was a child, and I came here in the fourth grade with my mother, I have always been so in love with the city, and enamored,” Sarah declared. “It felt like it was a magical place. Most of the United States you travel here and there, and we all kind of have this collective feeling of being American. Coming to New Orleans, it made me feel like I had a connection with a different land, with a different nation, with a different continent even. Because of that history, people treat each other differently in New Orleans.”
“In New Orleans, we like to have a good time, and we like to laugh, and we like to enjoy life,” she continued. “If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at? We think of ourselves very much in a collective nature, but because of that we are going to accept the eccentrics in our community, as being people that should be celebrated, not ostracized.”
“Eccentric people quite often get celebrated in literature, and in newspaper articles and in general, they kind of become icons in our community,” she said. “There’s an expression I love, ‘In New Orleans, we don’t hide crazy; we put it out on the porch and give it a cocktail.’ We celebrate individuality. It’s a Southern tradition to celebrate eccentrics in your family, and kind of go, ‘Oh, well, you know.’ “
“New Orleans is the kind of place where every day you make ten new friends,” Sarah said. “This is where I’m accepted for who I am. I can say something crazy, and it’s not a big deal, because the person next to me said something crazy ten minutes ago; we laughed at it, moved on, and had a great time. So, that’s why I call New Orleans my boyfriend, because no matter where I go, he’s doing what I want to do, and treating me well, and respecting me.”
“As far as the city being different than it was before Katrina, you have to realize the demographic of the city has changed significantly,” she explained. “There are a whole group of people who are going to become extinct because for generations and generations they intermingled with each other, married each other, procreated with each other, and had their neighborhoods in New Orleans. Now it can be kind of sad, when you come to a certain intersection, and you say, ‘Eww, I used to see so and so standing there,’ or, ‘That restaurant was there, and there was always about ten people standing on that corner.' "
“It is very different than it was before, but there’s a belief in the city now that you better respect New Orleans,” she said. “We didn’t go through all of everything we went through with Katrina to lose. That may be one of the reasons why we’re thought of as being a great place for entrepreneurs nowadays, a great place for young people to come and live their dream.”
My visit to New Orleans and Lafayette Cemetery # 1 inspired me to search for the tiny tendrils of new beginnings I can find sprouting from within the vault where I contain my grief.
My mother is dying. Many of her ribs are broken now, brittle from the cumulative effect of two bouts of lung cancer, chemotherapy and a decade on steroids and oxygen. Like a fungus, scar tissue is slowly and insidiously growing around those broken bones, taking up more and more of the space into which the remnants of her lungs might otherwise inflate. Despite it literally being painful for her to breathe, her humor is her lifeline, one she resolutely and courageously refuses to relinquish.
My mother is not a saint but she has been one of my most powerful teachers in what it means to be human. I am conscious that our time together is short and I seek to extract daily every ounce of meaning from our shared lives. It is with a deep sense of wonder that I realize how lessons that have been a lifetime in the making are only now bearing fruit.
As an adolescent, when I would act like the weight of the world had been hoisted on my shoulders for being expected to execute agreed-upon chores, my mother would often impatiently utter what I call a “Universal Mom Truism:” Stop being such a martyr. My teenage self hated that expression; now as an adult when I am tempted to bitch and moan about something I willingly committed to doing, I sometimes hear mom’s voice and smile to myself.
Like many women of her generation, mom is fond of quoting Eleanor Roosevelt’s words of wisdom. In citing one of the former First Lady’s bon mots ““No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” mom was quick to point out that didn’t mean people wouldn’t try to negate or diminish you.
It is from her that I learned that hurt people hurt people and that generally when people lash out, it is often a projection of their own internal pain rather than a reflection of circumstances. She shared with me a code for remaining respectful when speaking one’s truth: “Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it true?” When I can remember those three questions, I am able to refrain from pushing the send button on many an email I’ve written while emotion was high and reason not in play.
I can sometimes forget that what other people think of me is none of my business. This is likely an ongoing lesson that I may never fully master. I can easily get caught off guard by an unexpected reaction—either my own or someone else’s--and do my personal version of a “drop step” emotionally.
Human nature being what it is, I will probably always have plenty of opportunities to exercise mom’s three-question guideline to civility–both in terms of recognizing the need to bite my own tongue, and to practice compassion when others are unable to bite theirs. I am a work-in-progress as far as discerning those times when it's appropriate to disengage while practicing that compassion.
Happily, when overcome with a thought or feeling that makes me stumble and swoon, I am getting better at more quickly regaining my footing and resuming my dance.
After all, life is short.