A Living Cemetery

(Early on the morning of December 22, 2005, I was working on the website and on a whim decided to look for possible remnants of a work I had started in 1998 and eventually completed in 2002. To my astonishment I found the completed first chapter embedded within another document. It is about my town and it's history. Since Katrina I had thought that the work was completely gone; now I remember that I had stored much of the work in a number of locations and am now actively pursuing them. This is an original manuscript from 2002)
 
 

A Living Cemetery (Sean M. Perry)

 
When I first started researching Lafayette Cemetery during 1996, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. So many people, so many years, and so much intrigue and controversy including numerous wars, fought on the battlefield as well as in the courtrooms and on the streets of New Orleans. We have generals here, politicians, lawyers, doctors, as well as writers and artists, etc.; or generals, lawyers and doctors who were also writers and artists. Firefighters, police officers, shopkeepers, refinery workers, you name it, and their wives, mistresses and families, of a variety of races and cultures, now virtually inconspicuously a part of New Orleans' culture, can also be found. I have ancestors here, as do many of us, and friends of these ancestors, people and families who, over more than a century and a half, have built not just a city but a whole way of life.
This is not a "City Of The Dead", but one of the LIVING (hence the title).
 
...When I am gone, forever gone,
I will be remembered yet,
So think of me sometimes, dear friends,
And do not quite forget...

 
Some of the old timers have stories which are, frankly, shocking when you first hear them, then kind of funny, such as how they would play in the cemetery as kids and move family vases around so that on holidays they could earn pocket money by "helping" to find and retrieve them.
This certainly wasn't good for the cemetery, but some would do even worse things, such as "elbowing" name plaques, which are very fragile and made an extremely gratifying sound as they would crash to the ground and break into a million pieces...and I hear this story while I am going crazy trying to find names with very little to go on! Well, I guess it's too late to try to put a sixty year old into reform school.  

Another story reflects the working-to-middle-class environment which prevailed at the time, before people started moving out to the burbs. Most of the homes in the neighborhood weren't air-conditioned back then, and in the summer families had to rely upon the high ceilings, fans, and transom windows to control the heat.
"Shotgun" houses, with rooms in tandem and no hallways, afforded only general working space and even less privacy, so kids were encouraged to go out into the neighborhood (the term "shotgun" meant that you could stand on the front porch, shoot a gun through the house and it would go out the backdoor). After supper, as the evening cooled, the adults and younger children would lounge on their porches and tend to social activities, while the bigger kids would converge on their favorite hangouts. The cemetery was popular because it afforded numerous places to hide. I heard a story about how some of them would grease the streetcar tracks, then run the block to the cemetery to observe their handiwork with little fear of being caught. At the corner of Prytania and Washington Ave. is a spot where one can simply lean over the wall and have a perfect view of St. Charles Ave. In case you don't get it, they were waiting for the streetcar to crash into something.
 
One day an older gentleman, who must have been in his eighties, came out to the cemetery. I noticed him wandering around, not out of interest but as if he were searching for something specific. So I asked him if I could help. Gladly, he replied. His grandfather's tomb was somewhere in the cemetery but since he had last seen it as a child he had absolutely no recollection as to where it might be found. At the time the name and location listing was nowhere near being complete, but a little wandering around produced a resounding "Bingo!" - the term we yell out so that all searchers will know that the tomb has been located. He was delighted, which is very heartening, and immediately started going down the list of names on the tomb, describing members of his family with such enthusiasm that I was personally very happy that I was able to help. And he also gave me a wonderful story about his grandfather. I have heard many over the years, but this one is of particular interest. His grandfather had been a caretaker at the cemetery around the turn of the century, had owned a house outside of the Sixth St. gate, a few doors away from my family's home (which I was able to verify), but the funniest part of the story is this: his grandfather had also operated a dairy and kept his cows, of all places, within the cemetery!
 

It's amazing how, over time, all of these stories fit together to form a picture of how life was long before most of us were born. It's doubtful, due to the period, that there is a photograph or painting which could be entitled "Cows Grazing in the Washington St. Cemetery", and I have just a few close-to-firsthand stories describing this period in the first place.
I have only lightly gone over the works of others so as to keep the integrity of the project's originality intact. But the works of John Churchill Chase inspired me, a lovely man whom I remember vividly from when I was very young because he worked for many years at WDSU-TV here, the NBC affilliate, together with my father. Watching him draw just off of the newsroom and edit suites will always be a dear memory. One of his books, "Frenchman, Desire, Good Children and Other Streets of New Orleans", was a great inspiration, along with the works of Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and others who sought to document our, as well as their own, lives. I am honored to be a part of this tradition. Amongst serious historians we have a joke: There is only ONE river...you might call it something else, but WE call it the Mississippi! (this is a little like: My river can beat up your river!....very typical New Orleans).
 
But that's what it's all about; people...and their stories. I wasn't trying to actively collect stories; it just went along with the effort to make the cemetery a safer place. A few of the stories are profound, most are of the everyday variety, but all are important. Some of my favorites come from the "little old ladies", the lovely ones who would come, say, at least several times a year to visit a husband who had passed away, maybe, twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. They talk about him as if it were yesterday, what he did for a living, his accomplishments, how he had been a good father and husband. Sometimes they would come with family members, such as on holidays, but often they would come alone, and I would spend as much time with them as I could, even when I had other things I needed to do. But you know, and this is no joke, that after so many years of talking with families, that you get the impression that they might all have been married to the same man, their stories were so similar. And sometimes they would ask me to cleanup around their tombs for them, which I didn't mind doing, if I had the time. This one lovely lady (who has since passed away), has given me one of the nicest and most memorable stories to date: she would always praise me for being willing to spend the time there, how dangerous it had been, and how she had been afraid for a long time to come by alone. If she couldn't see me from her car at the gate, she would drive around until she did, sometimes for twenty minutes or so. When she asked me if I would look after her coping for her, I told her in a Southern Gentlemanly fashion that I would be glad to. Before she left she sat down momentarily and removed a metal "Sucrets" cough drops can from her purse, held together with a rubber band. She opened it, pulled out a fresh, crisp, five dollar bill, started to hand it to me, then stopped. She looked at me thoughtfully for a few moments, took out a second bill, then handed me both, remarking, "You're worth it!". I now feel obligated to weed her coping for the rest of my life. I was there when she was interred and made sure that both she and her husband were comfy, and will always wish that everyone could have such beautiful experiences in their lives.....

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