The role of sextons, stonecutters and tomb builders in this time was grim. In the summer “sickly season,” when all those who could afford to left the city for drier, cooler climbs, these craftsmen and caretakers were obligated to remain and make their trade available. This meant much more than building tombs as quickly as possible – since many stonecutters were sextons themselves, it meant managing the overwhelming presence of deceased bodies, many of which had no tomb or lot into which they could be interred.
In some cases, victims were interred of by way of mass grave. In many more cemeteries beyond Girod, laborers were hired to dig long rows for the burial of simple donated caskets, covered up with small mounds of earth. In other cases, charities could accommodate the cost of burial in wall vaults. Often, families lent the use of their private tombs to friends with deceased spouses or children.
Barring these kindnesses, indigent fever victims were buried in potter’s fields: Locust Grove (demolished 1905) and a cemetery simply known as the “Bayou Cemetery,” which, in 1851, was described by Dr. Bennett Dowler as “the great Irish necropolis,” due to its high rate of immigrant burials. Potter’s fields were populated with below-ground interments. Said Dowler: “I have watched the bailing out of the grave, the floating of the coffin, and have heard the friends of deceased deplore this mode of interment.”
Sextons were paid for their services with burial fees based on the deceased’s status as colored or white, child or adult, and whether the interment was to be an act of charity. These fees varied from fifty cents to $1.50, with a $3.00 charge for the opening and closing of tombs and vaults, to be paid by the tomb owner.
It was the additional responsibility of the sexton of each New Orleans cemetery to enforce the ordinances of the city and state regarding interments and sanitation. One of these ordinances demanded that the deceased be accompanied by a certificate of burial to be obtained from a physician or coroner before being brought to the cemetery. Such a certificate was not always easy to obtain, particularly those of lesser means. The ordinance also dictated that burial had to occur within forty-eight hours of death - the fine for noncompliance was one hundred dollars. Thus, the restraints of time and money often led to the abandonment of the deceased, as illustrated in August 1853 Harper's Monthly:
A cabman is called to retrieve a sixteen year-old girl, sick with yellow fever, and take her to the hospital. By the time the cab arrived, the girl had died. Returning to the girl's shuttered-up house, no person inside would answer his knocks and claim their daughter:
What could he do with a corpse! They would not receive her at the hospital; her parents refused her - and he could not afford to bury her. At last it occurred to him to take her to the nearest cemetery. Away he started as fast as his wearied horse could drag the cab. Arrived at the cemetery, the sexton was asked to receive a corpse.
"Where is the certificate!"
"I have none."
"It can't be done."
"Here she is!" and the cabman unrolled the blanket.
"What! not even coffined - and no certificate! I'll have you arrested."
The sexton’s responsibility to collect burial certificates extended to him the power to seize the horse and cart of the undertaker or cabman until the proper documentation could be produced. In a situation which undoubtedly occurred too regularly, the cabman could do nothing else but leave the girl's corpse on the doorstep of her parents' house until passersby took notice and sent for a "corporate coffin" in which to bury the girl.
Many of the sextons of New Orleans were the city's greatest stonecutters. In the Catholic Cemeteries: Paul Hippolyte Monsseaux, Etienne Courcelle. Girod Street Cemetery was attended to by Horace Blakesley for many years. Daniel Merritt and the Barrett family cared for Cypress Grove and Odd Fellows Rest. In the Lafayette Cemeteries, Phil Harty, D.F. Simpson, and J. Frederick Birchmeier cared for both tombs and burials. Each of these sextons built great works of funerary architecture while simultaneously attending the ever-present realities of epidemic.
By early fall each year, those remaining in New Orleans waited desperately for the first frost of the season to arrive, thus culling the population of A. aegypti mosquitoes which carried the fever from victim to victim. Eventually the interment numbers, reported to local newspapers each day by sextons, would decline. Ever hopeful for an end to the devastation, local leaders urged that, “what duty and humanity enjoin is patience under the affliction… and with kindly charities and mutual good offices wait hopefully until the end.”
Content adapted from Emily Ford, “The Stonecutters and Tomb Builders of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1,” M.S. Thesis, 2013. Available here.
The "Sercy tomb," lot 1) 339, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, holds the remains of three siblings: Sercy, Edwin Given, and Mary Love, all of whom died in infancy during the epidemic of 1878. They were likely the children of the Ferguson family, who owned the tomb. Stonecutting company Kursheedt & Bienvenu carved this tablet.
Benjamin H. Trask, Fearful Ravages: Yellow Fever in New Orleans, 1796-1905. Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2005.
Jo Ann Carrigan, The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796-1905. Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1994.
 Huber, Leonard Victor, and Guy F. Bernard, To Glorious Immortality, The Rise and Fall of Girod Street Cemetery, New Orleans’ First Protestant Cemetery, Alblen Books, 1961, 9.
 Officially-appointed cemetery caretakers. This role originated with church vicars and later extended to municipal, church, and fraternally-appointed positions.
 New Orleans Public Library, http://nutrias.org/guides/genguide/burialrecords.htm
 The “Bayou Cemetery” potter’s field was established in 1835; while many references suggest the site was redeveloped and became St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, some sources suggest the site of the cemetery to have been elsewhere.
 Bennett 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: Cohen’s Directory Company, 1852): 19-20.
 “Ordinance Relating to Cemeteries and Interments,” New Orleans Daily Creole, December 30, 1856, 4.
 “History and Incidents of the Plague in New Orleans,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 7, Issue 39 (August 1853), 800.
 “The Fever,” Daily Picayune, July 30, 1853, 2.