CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Scenes from a Cemetery Part II (and the Garden District): New Orleans

Posted by: Alison O’Connor, Larimer County Extension

I’m in New Orleans for the American Society of Horticultural Science annual meeting. First of all, it’s hot. Like really hot. I described it as being hugged by a furnace. The heat index is well north of 100 degrees. Second of all, for a first-time visitor, New Orleans is an incredible place. History, fun and great food! What more can you ask for!?

Today I toured the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in conjunction with a tour of the historic Garden District. The cemetery is the oldest in the city of New Orleans and dates back to 1832. It is a municipal cemetery and doesn’t have a religious affiliation, so anyone could be buried there. I loved what the tour guide, Sarah, said about visiting cemeteries—“It’s where the history is.” I couldn’t agree more if you remember my other blog about the cemetery in New Jersey last fall.

The oldest cemetery in New Orleans, dating back to 1832.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (New Orleans, Louisiana) 
The magnolias, which were replanted in the 1970s, were a welcome relief from the sun. There was a lot of “hardscape” in the cemetery, which added to the heat index.
Magnolias casting welcome shade in the cemetery.
What is most fascinating is that the people of New Orleans are buried in a very different way than what we typically experience in the west…and often with their entire family. In the same tomb. I’m not sure about you, but that’s a whole lot of "family time" for everlasting eternity.

The tombs are located above ground—the highest point in the cemetery is nine feet above sea level. Burying the dead above ground is out of necessity—caskets would float to the surface after being buried. (Yikes!) The tombs are constructed from various stone, but the most basic are brick covered in plaster. Many of the name plates on the tomb entrance were marble.

The tombs have two levels. The upper level is where the most recently deceased is placed (in a simple casket). The bottom level is where the deceased were placed after their one year period on the top floor. So you have an above-ground tomb, constructed of brick, in New Orleans. Yes, it gets hot and as a result, creates rapid decomposition of the body. After a year, the bones are placed in a muslin bag (where the term “bag of bones” comes from) and placed below. The next body goes to the upper shelf.
Don't worry--this tomb has never been used. But you can see the two levels. The top shelf is for the most recently deceased. The bottom is where individuals are placed the year after burial.
With this process, dozens of family members can be buried together. There were people, from the same family, buried in the 1800s and as recently as a couple years ago.
Twenty two people are buried here together.
One of the most precious things on many of these tombs are the resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), aptly named for their growth habit. These true ferns, which are epiphytic, can lose up to 97% of water and still live. With the smallest addition of water, the ferns spring back to life. Native to Africa and parts of the Americas, some resurrection ferns have lain dormant for over 100 years. These ferns take nutrients from the air and any precipitation that falls to live and grow. Talk about a tough plant! These ferns were tucked in various pockets on the tombs, ground and on trees in the cemetery. I even saw some growing on a brick wall in a parking lot.
Resurrection fern growing on a tomb in the cemetery.
Following the cemetery, we took a stroll around the Garden District to ooh and awe at the magnificent homes. As a girl from the Midwest, seeing houseplants (like cast iron plant, cycad palm and bird of paradise) planted as landscape shrubs still fascinates me. And the best part—I haven’t seen one juniper since my arrival!
A gorgeous home in the Garden District.
The live oaks are spectacular. There are some live oaks in the southern part of Louisiana that are hundreds of years old. They probably aren’t the best street tree, since their roots eat sidewalks and heave the concrete, but are incredibly attractive.
I'm sure any arborist would agree that this is a pretty good trip hazard.
Lawns for the most part, are not in front of many homes. Disease (brown patch!) and insects (chinch bugs!) tend to wipe out the hardiest of turfgrass, though a select few homes had bermudagrass, St. Augustinegrass and centipedegrass.

And one home had a wrought iron fence that brought me back to my days at Iowa State. This home, where the lady of home was from Iowa, had a corn fence, painted to authentic green. Our tour guide informed us that the fence needs to be painted every two years, or it would essentially disintegrate due to the weather.
The cornstalk fence at the Cornstalk Fence Mansion, 1448 Fourth Street, New Orleans.

The house is for sale! For a cool $6.5 million, you could own this fence.

For you Peyton Manning fans, he grew up in New Orleans and this is his childhood home. His father, Archie, still lives here.
Eli Manning grew up here, too.
Is it time to eat again? I’m hankering for another po’boy!


  1. So glad you enjoyed the city and got to see No. 1! Did you smell the 4 o'clocks every afternoon? Can't get rid of them once they are planted.

  2. Elaine in West FargoAugust 15, 2015 at 7:48 PM

    This brought back memories for me. I grew up in New Orleans, but moved north for a job. My parents moved to Wisconsin, so I haven't been back for 20 years +. I miss the history now that I'm gone. And the food. Real po'boys...mmmmm! And the grits. I just remember them tasting better there than they do here in ND? We learned all about the cemeteries in school. And it mattered where you went to school. High school I mean. And which cemetery your family was buried in. I hope you went on a good "ghost tour"? The history is fascinating even if you don't buy the ghost part. One thing I don't miss is the miserable weather and humidity though ND's is nothing to brag about.

    Thanks for the memories - without the heat and humidity! :) I just found your blog while looking for information on how to divide my irises. You have a great blog. It's fun to read. I have bookmarked it and will be back to read. After I divide my irises that is. :)

  3. I love that you write about things that arent just about plants and gardening. Maybe other people just want plants and bugs and lawns and vegetables, but I like the other things you write about here. This was so interesting that I have to read more about the New Orleans cemeteries. I'm going to a conference ther too, in October. So I will go on the cemetery tour. Could you let me know which tour guid you used - if you thought they did a great job? Thanks!

  4. The tour company was Free Tours by Foot. And they really are free, if you choose. Or you give the tour guide an amount you feel appropriate. Make sure to book a reservation through their website:
    I also did a ghost tour which was a lot of fun. The history, again, was fantastic. Have fun in New Orleans!

  5. How cool is that? I had no idea people were 'buried' that way. We're going in Feb and now I will take some walking tours...