The article is presented here in pieces, with background inserted regarding the content. Original Times-Picayune narrative from July 13, 1873 is indicated in italics.
Sitting on a Tombstone
TALK WITH A GRAVEDIGGER
“How long wil a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?” [Hamlet]
A reporter of the PICAYUNE, chancing in his peregrinations to stroll into the Washington Cemetery in the cool of early morning, met and engaged in conversation with the assistant sexton.
The term “sexton” is given to a person who maintains a cemetery in a professional capacity. It originated with a religious connotation, indicating a man who cared for both the church building and the adjoining cemetery. Later, as more and more cemeteries were established outside parish land, the term “sexton” migrated to the secular sphere. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 was founded in 1833 as a municipal cemetery, and thus was never religiously affiliated.
In 1873, the sexton of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 and 2 was Joseph F. Callico (1828 – 1885). Callico was a free person of color who worked for most of his career beside St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, and also beside fellow stonecutter Paul Hippolyte Monsseaux. Around 1870, when Monsseaux himself ceased his business, Joseph Callico moved to Washington Avenue to serve as the sexton of the Washington Cemeteries. By 1875, he returned to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, where his brother Fernand served as sexton.
The sexton interviewed in this article may or may not have been J.F. Callico, although no other “assistant sexton” is listed for these cemeteries in 1873. Moreover, the Picayune seems to have been fond of Callico, attesting in another 1873 piece “[the Lafayette cemeteries are] under the management of Sexton Joseph Frederick Callicoh [sic], who deserves much credit for the manner in which he discharges his trust. Everything is kept neat and in good order, and he is courteous and willing to be of service to those who visit or have tombs there.”
With the mocking-birds warbling their orisons in the tall, funereal cypress, the sprightly wrens chirping their modest notes as they hopped from tomb to tomb, the rustling of the leaves to the touch of the west wind, the mind was led away from the busy city, to dwell upon the things to be.
Addressing the first gravedigger, our reporter inquired how long does a body buried in the ground retain its form and flesh?
This passage offers some confirmation of what the landscape history of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 suggests: that earlier below-ground burials were replaced by above-ground tombs. Dr. Bennett Dowler wrote in 1852 that Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 was a primarily a belowground cemetery, owing to the preference of Irish and German immigrants for inhumation over tomb burial. Pre-1850’s burials in Lafayette No. 1 are difficult to find today, but most of which remain show some modification over time, suggesting that the assimilated children and grandchildren of immigrants later converted their family lots to traditional New Orleans tombs. This could be one reason the sexton came upon a burial while constructing a new tomb. The gravedigger expands on this notion in his next answer.
“Do they bury many in the ground now in this cemetery?”
“No,” said he “in this place most everyone has a tomb. You know, this yard has been buried some ten times over, and people don’t care to put their friends under earth when tombs don’t cost much more.”
While “ten times over” may be exaggerated for Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in 1873, the cemetery was declared “full” by Lafayette and New Orleans city councils in 1847 and 1856, respectively. Neither of these ordinances was paid much mind, and burials continued. Furthermore, in the earliest years of the cemetery, between 1833 and 1853, approximately 30% of the individuals listed in interment books are noted as enslaved people. Amounting to thousands if not tens of thousands of burials, records do not indicate their location, although they are unlikely to be in the cemetery wall vaults.
“From your experience, what part of the body is the first to suffer from the effects of decomposition?”
“The head goes first always. You see there isn’t so much flesh about it, and it doesn’t take long for it to go. The other parts go after it very soon; they all seem to go together.”
While the good taste of asking this question in the first place is suspect, it is interesting to note the anachronism. In 1873, embalming had only recently become a possibility. The widespread practice of embalming starting in the twentieth century certainly affected the decomposition patterns of burials in New Orleans tombs and elsewhere.
“In digging about these unoccupied places, do ever meet with the remains of human beings?” asked the reporter.
“Oh, yes. The whole of Lafayette Cemetery has been filled, even to the avenues. When this was first a graveyard, it was not laid out regularly, and now when we have to repair the walkways, the bones are always turned up.”
[more unnecessary description of decomposition]
“Is there any difference between burying in the ovens and in the ground?”
“Oh! Yes. In the ovens they don’t last six months, for with the metallic cases it does not take much time to destroy everything. In the ground, metallic cases, if they are good, last twenty years, and wooden ones about three."
Dr. Bennett Dowler also observed the accelerated decomposition patterns taking place in above-ground tombs: “The body is completely decomposed, the bones separated, and the offensive gasses dissipated in about three months, in the hot season, and six months in winter. I have found that the bones of the young and old would frequently crumble into dust, from a slight pressure, after an entombment of 30 to 40 years. The sexton of one of the Catholic cemeteries, on opening a vault in the upper range, to remove a body long buried, found the corpse completely desiccated – no putrefaction had taken place; the hair and whiskers were firmly fixed, and natural in appearance; the face was little changed… In temperate climates, corpses buried in the ground require, probably, four years, for decomposition, except the bones, which may last for indefinite periods.” Of course, these observations also took place prior to widespread embalming.
“You have closed many tombs and doubtless have some knowledge of the manner the bereaved act in their pangs of sorrow?”
“The widows come every week for about a month or two, fixing up everything. When they cry most they don’t come back at all, but when you see one who looks all the time at the coffin and doesn’t make a fuss you can be sure she will put flowers there for years.”
The reporter, anxious to know about the sterner sex, asked: “Do the men act differently?”
“Not at all. We carried out a man not long since entirely overcome by his grief, but he never came back. You can put it down when you see a person looking like he didn’t care to live anymore, he’ll get over it by morning.”
Descending from our seat on a tombstone, the reporter next went to the office of the Sexton, where after much labor he found that in the pleasant grounds of the Washington Cemetery lie the remains of 21,889 persons. Taking the boundaries within the walls of the city of the dead, the bodies if placed close together would be five deep on this central ground for the remains of those departed. Beneath the walls and avenues rest the multitude of the unknown, their graves are unmarked, their resting place unnoticed.
In a recent survey of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, transcribing three-quarters of all legible tablets on the property, approximately 14,000 names were tallied. The article above was printed five years before one of the most deadly yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans history transformed the landscape of this cemetery by the sheer number of interments and new construction. With these figures taken into consideration, and considering 21,889 interments were recorded 144 years ago, the amount of loss of tablets and records is overwhelming. Every piece of stone remaining in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is a precious survivor.
Also, never, never sit on tombstones.
 Louisiana State Board of Health, Biennial Report of the Louisiana State Board of Health, 1883-84, 40; Edwards Annual Directory…in the City of New Orleans for 1872 (New Orleans: Southern Publishing Company, 1872), 86; Edwards Annual Directory for New Orleans 1873 (New Orleans: Southern Publishing Company, 1873), 90; United States Census, 1880, New Orleans, Louisiana, Roll 461, Page 234C.
 “All Saints’ Day – The Living Remember the Dead,” Times-Picayune, November 2, 1873, 1.
 Bennet Dowler, M.D., “Tableaux, Geographical, Commercial, Geological and Sanitary of New Orleans,” printed in Cohen’s New Orleans and Lafayette Directory for 1852 (New Orleans: Office of the Daily Delta, 1852), 21.
 Mayoralty of New Orleans, Common Council, City of New Orleans, “An Ordinance Relating to Cemeteries and Interments,” Daily Creole, December 30, 1856, 4.
 New Orleans Public Library, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 Interment Records, Vols. 1-5, microfilm.
 Dowler, 21.