Let’s say you plan an outing for a Friday or Saturday afternoon with a friend from out of town. You decide to visit the Garden District and have lunch at Commander’s Palace. As you exit, you remember what an experience it is to visit one of New Orleans’ most famous cities of the dead: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, directly across the street from the restaurant.
So you amble across Washington Avenue to its imposing wrought-iron gates. If you’re hoping to get inside, however, you’re up for a serious disappointment: Despite the cemetery hours being painted on the wall, the gates are locked up tight with a big padlock securing them. At first, you’re puzzled — you’re visiting during “normal” cemetery hours, after all.
Then you notice, off to one side, a printed message in a plastic sleeve taped to an iron pillar. It reads “Lafayette Cemetery #1 will be temporarily closed for repairs.” Someone has handwritten on the sheet “Sept 2019.”
This scene has played out countless times over the past two years. And even though the closure is intended to be temporary, many are wondering just how much longer they’ll have to wait before visiting it again.
To find out, I called Save Our Cemeteries, the nonprofit founded in 1974 with the express mission of preserving New Orleans burial places. First I browsed the group’s website looking for clues and found this: “St. Louis Cemeteries No. 1 & 2 and Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District are closed. We don’t know when they will open again.”
When I spoke with Carolyn Sinclair, the interim executive director, she expressed frustration. “The last communication we had from the city was in June of 2020,” she said.
In that email, the city’s Director of Cemeteries Emily Ford reported on termite-related repairs to the sexton’s cottage or shed and said three groundskeepers had been hired to perform regular maintenance of Lafayette No. 1. As of June 2020, they had cleaned “the tops of the Washington Avenue wall vaults of weeds and cleared the drains.”
It’s clearly time for an update. So I attempted to reach Ford for a follow-up. And although she wasn’t available for an interview, I got this from the City Hall communications office: “An Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant restroom has been installed, repairs have been made to remediate termite damage to Sexton Cottage, new security cameras and a smart lock gate access have been installed, a waterline repair has been completed and various plumbing repairs have been finished.”
City Hall acknowledged that a number of necessary tasks remain on the to-do list prior to reopening, including trimming street trees and replacing walkways with permeable paving.
But the most important item on the list hints at why the cemetery may have been closed in the first place: “Developing a plan for security personnel.”
That may allude to the fact that tomb owners, some Garden District residents and licensed tour guides have voiced concern about the “carnival atmosphere” that prevailed in the 1400 block of Washington Avenue prior to the cemetery’s closure.
Rob Florence, a tour guide who has written extensively about the cemeteries, is one of them.
“Quite frankly, the atmosphere had deteriorated because of all the crowds and the behavior of unlicensed guides and their guests,” he said. “One day when I was there, an unlicensed guide appeared in a pedicab with a boom box blaring and a beer in one hand. It just was not respectful of the families whose loved ones are buried there.”
Florence said he attended a meeting in City Hall before the pandemic to talk about what could be done to fix the issues. He said he stands with the tomb owners and understands their disgust for the crowds of visitors “desecrating” the cemetery.
“But surely there is a way to balance things better than to close the cemetery,” he said.
District B Councilman Jay H. Banks appears to agree. In January, he hosted a community development committee meeting at which he expressed a desire to find a “sweet spot” in managing Lafayette No. 1, an approach that would balance the interests of guests and tour guides with the importance of observing proper decorum on sacred ground.
The head of property management for the city, Martha Griset, gave a PowerPoint presentation to update the committee on the state of the cemeteries — chiefly Lafayette No. 1 and its prospects for reopening.
Griset said the city was “waiting on bond funding to complete the final repairs to the walkways in Lafayette No. 1,” and she discussed the pandemic’s impact on the plans. Even before the delta variant began raging, Covid-19 had made it unsafe for cemetery tours, she explained, because the narrow cemetery aisles would make it impossible for guests to maintain appropriate social distances.
Griset also stated the need for robust security at Lafayette No. 1 and for “better control of tour groups and other visitors so that there are fewer people at any given time.”
For a blueprint of how to manage the cemetery, the city need look no further than St. Louis No. 1 at the edge of the Vieux Carre, according to a public comment received at the committee meeting. Only licensed and insured tour guides are eligible to lead tours within the cemetery walls of the Catholic cemetery, and guides must register with the archdiocese.
Groups are limited in size, and the guide has full responsibility for the behavior of the group he or she leads. The guide pays a fee to the archdiocese for each guest. Bad actors can be fined and their privileges taken away. Not only does this approach limit the number of people in the cemetery at any given time but it ensures an income stream for hiring security personnel to manage the guides and their guests.
Could such a plan work at Lafayette No. 1?
Many think it can, and that there’s no need to devise a new management plan. If they’re right, then — Covid permitting — a reopening date could be established for Lafayette No. 1.
According to Sinclair of Save Our Cemeteries, it can’t come soon enough.
“By keeping that cemetery closed, they are economically impacting not just us but many other tour organizations, as well as other businesses,” she said. “This is a cemetery that visitors have read about and would like to visit.”
Reporter R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at email@example.com.