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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great update! Thanks, Stephanie and Uptown Messenger.
I have been waiting for almost two years for the cemetery to open in order to maintain my Great, Great Grandfathers tomb. The NO mayor from California I believe is taking orders from the Deep State to make New Orleans citizens mad as hell by closing this cemetary. The so called repairs have been completed and I see no reason for the cemetery to remain closed.
Charles contact the City to make an appointment. Please see below for information:
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is currently CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC while repairs and improvements take place. Family members of those interred in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 may make an appointment to visit the cemetery by calling (504) 658-3781.
Stephanie, Why did you remove my post? C.G.Walsdorf PS: I was only telling the truth.
Can I come paint my parents tomb before all saints day.
Family members of those interred in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 can make an appointment to visit the cemetery by calling the city’s cemetery administration at 504-658-3781.
I must give deep credit to the Messenger for being way out front of the reporting on this issue, but must also point out there are still several talking points with no factual basis.
St. Louis #1 is closed indefinitely, with plans to give the company that runs hop-on hop-off buses a TOTAL MONOPOLY when it re-opens. Please do accurate research and correct the story.
Please be journalistic, not vague and describing a carnival atmosphere. We’re talking about 4-5 soliciting tour guides that could easily be ticketed under present rules if the city enforced them. There is absolutely no need for a closure and it doesn’t accomplish anything, do not print shadowy vague references, on any other topic it’s impossible to imagine journalism using such terms as “carnival” when all they can say is a pedi-cab had a speaker blaring music? That’s far from a carnival, that’s many parts of the city on any given day. It’s these type of talking points politicians are using. Everything those politicians have said has proved false, yet the article is riddled with their lingo. Stick to the facts, when you do, you do very well. When you stray, you lose sight of the truth, and it shows.|
Kristen Palmer has a tomb in the cemetery, and she’ll make changes to the rules if elected and has said so. Very relevant to the story, don’t play politics, write the reality.
The public reason given for the closure at present, I have this in writing from Martha Griset, is “awaiting legislation”. First it was “repairs,” then “Covid,” now you print that maybe we’re getting a hint? So, you are admitting that city officials have lied about this closure. Without repairs, they have no legal reason to close it at all. The media is tip-toeing around the truth for access and not simply saying this closure is illegal when it is on its face. You can’t play it cute and escape the reality, someone needs to hold those in power accountable, that’s the job.
Great that the Messenger is writing about this important subject, even though many of the city’s claims can be disproven on their face and should not be included:
* the walkways are no different than a building hallway except it’s exterior. so social distancing is impossible in any such space? that’s not true of any other city property, a wild unproven claim. I wish those of us with no power had the same standard for having our words printed… even in the comments section ; )
* no facts cited for overcrowding, so what’s the justification for closure on this grounds based on? City officials are allowed to make up reasons, and switch between them, without being asked for any evidence at all.
* no facts cited for carnival atmosphere other than someone playing music. if you wrote the facts in a normal factual manner, it’s 4-5 tour guides soliciting for tours. “Hey take a free tour!” The reason they don’t want to define that is because that could easily be stopped by present laws, doesn’t require a closure at all. Instead, shadowy talking points are being used to manufacture a crisis and demonize a whole industry.
* The words of Mr. Florence were used entirely misrepresent his actual position — which is acknowledged in the last line you quote. While he acknowledges the 4-5 solicitors mentioned and ACTUAL issues, he would not agree at all with the over-the-top characterizations the city mentions in this article and I’m sure explained many compelling reasons not to close the cemetery, not listed here. I’m glad we finally get some call for comment from the other side so lacking on this subject, but it’s been gutted and transformed against itself, hasn’t it?
(Can’t seem to understand the website’s comment policy, and obviously other readers having same issue. Mine seemed to go up and be deleted, so I am re-posting, not trying to post multiples.)
Glad to see the comments showing such dissatisfaction. More complaints: who decided to name the paths and erect signs? There is a plaque on what once was the caretaker’s cabin. It contains names of politicians who will never get a vote from me. This monstrosity is replacing the caretaker’s cabin that was used for many years, whereas this expensive second installment is not in use; if it were used, that would be more useless expense. But this all actually fits into the scenery: torn up streets, work with topnotch equipment that is at a snail’s pace compared to third world speed with hand tools..
People who own the Tombs, because they paid money for the Tomb, have complete fair access to their property. When they bury their “People”, they pay more money to the city and Grave Attendants.
My Family Tomb had 2 nice vases at one time. Where are they now? Theft is an issue; Vandalism too. I would like a nice vase of Marble too, when I go in there. I have to wonder if it will disappear, as well.
I want people in there, who belong there.
Just because the “city” manages this property that was Donated for this purpose, does not mean every Resident who pays taxes should have access the Cemetery. Profiteers are disgusting, exploitation is sacrilegious with no respect for the dead. The curious can remain so, or visit one of the other cemeteries in the city, that are controlled with security personnel “around”.
When most come to Gawk, and play on the land of the dead, this does not make any since.
Why don’t you go where your people are? and dance around? or have a Fiesta time?
Because it’s sad and disrespectful to the dead.
I think the city is doing a wonderful job managing this property.
Who comes to “gawk” at a 10am historic Garden District tour? They come to hear a detailed history of Civil War, Reconstruction, and see wonderful architectural styles. Are people “gawking” at the Charles McClellan tomb because he’s so famous? These claims don’t hold up to even the slightest inspection. Folks who make them are just so privileged they’re not used to even having to prove their work.
Those who want to keep such historic treasures for the privileged few, under the pretense that a working class person even looking at them might damage them, is indecent. They want to change the historic use of the cemetery — a main component of preservation by any standard — and yet claim they are in favor of preservation.
No one gets to prioritize THEIR religion on public land, and claim some sort of sacred rights. It’s true I don’t respect that a space is sacred because I don’t believe in your god and neither do our laws. It reminds me of the baker who sued a man for smelling his bread… they don’t even want you to be able to see the historic treasures that they consider “theirs” by right of being “our people” — hm and do 99% of those people happen to be white? You can feel it all seething in their comments. In reality, we’re dealing with folks so wealthy and privileged they don’t even like it if a tour guest says hello to them in passing down the sidewalk like a normal person. They’d like to never even have to deal with the working class average person, can’t someone pass a law? This is the kind of “disturbance” of their “sacred rights” they’d like to prevent — and in private they say so.
I want to visit family graves in Lafayette NO. 1. I visited these graves as a child and young adult. I am now 79 and want to resume regular visits for All Saint’s Day, Christmas, and Easter. I am in an electric wheelchair. My husband and daughter will accompany me. Will we be safe? Should we be armed or have a guard with us? Are flowers allowed?
Thank you for contacting us, Ms. Williamson. Family members of those interred in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 can make an appointment to visit the cemetery by calling the city’s cemeteries division at 504-658-3781. They should also be able to answer your questions about what is allowed during the visit. Our best to you and your family.
My husband and I live in St. Louis, MO. We will be visiting New Orleans Sept 28-Oct 3. My great-grandfather is buried in Lafayette Cemetery #1. His name is Stephen Dehlinger (Dellinger). He died of “consumption” (Tuberculosis) on January 11, 1845. We would like to visit the cemetery.
Please advise how we can visit while we are in New Orleans.
Patti Sohn 314-406-5312
Family members of those interred in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 may make an appointment to visit the cemetery by calling (504) 658-3781 or emailing email@example.com.
Folks in the press refuse to report what they know and could easily share with the public:
– The city has passed a new tourism plan for the cemetery, and released it.
– This was done over the near unanimous objection of every member of the public at the meeting, including tomb owners, restorationists, and tour guides — all.
– Both Director Ford and council reps told all involved many times that the city plan would NOT be passed without a full council hearing and vote by council. Immediately after, Ford and District B’s office put it into effect without either.
The plan calls for a reduction of tourism to 1/50 of what the city estimated demand was. Tours will be on four groups of 8, a max total of only 128 people ALL day when they estimated a demand of 3000/day previously.
The plan restricts all tours to main footpaths, so the cast iron tomb, the weeping woman, much of the work of the famed sculptors — off limits.
The cemetery will be closed two days per week, more holidays, and anytime there’s a funeral, for the full day now.
While claiming that the tour limitations are about preserving tombs, the city’s plan allows for more UNGUIDED guests to roam around without tour supervision. These people are generally the real potential danger in damaging tombs, not that anyone has ever actually proved in all this that that’s a real problem, demonstrated a damaged tomb, incident, dollar amount, anything behind the city’s new tourism plan. Tomb owners hated the plan, they spoke loudly and publicly, but journalists still describe it helping tomb owners.
Cemeteries director Ford RAN an activist group that did paid surveillance of tour guides, and still has slander about guides posted to their website — inventing colorful fake names for them like Clown Girl and Voodoo Lady that do not exist. Ford says her tourism plan for the cemetery was drafted solely with that group she ran until taking office — she said this on the record at a public meeting to everyone. She also runs a company restoring private tombs, working for same said community of tomb owners as her paymasters, and still runs it although recused from work in public cemeteries now, clearly. The plan was made with ex-councilperson Palmer, who has a tomb in the cemetery– as was said by dep. director of cemeteries on record at a public meeting — a huge conflict of interest.
Certain few individuals didn’t want tours in the cemetery at all, and the majority of tomb owners clearly said “no, that’s not our issue”. Yet these interests are driving the whole government, and the press so far has only been accurate to the extent they buck power… so, not very. Ever.
Have been in touch with this publication for years, this one story gave me some hope they’d eventually complete the deal and print the real context.
But this publication knows many people opposed to the plan. If they ever wanted to interview some of those people and actually tell both sides of the story, instead of just printing the assertions of officials in power, it seems like that basic 101 stuff has been missing for three years on this story, in indefensible ways. It’s like 100 to 1 feel-good stories, and the story of the illegal (no repairs requiring a closure were ever intended, at any point) closure of an important cultural destination has never been brought to the public. You leave open-ended questions and leave out the very clear context because it would look bad for the city, and look bad for city council. But they made themselves look bad by closing the place illegally for three years, to not print that is just carrying water. There is still a ton of wrong info up on your site that you should either remove, correct, or replace with a new story. Otherwise, you know that’s wrong.
Are there any graveyards in the Garden District we can visit while on vacation in April of 2023? We will be staying at the St Charles Inn Motel on 3636 St Charles Ave in April 2023. We’re driving down from Illinois for a few days…. Any information would be appreciated, thank you very much..