It’s late October in Old Gretna and there’s some busyness happening at the landmark Hook and Ladder Cemetery at 1050 Lafayette Street.

Local Catholic families, and many non-Catholics follow the tradition of honoring the dead for All Saints Day on Nov. 1. They will usually spend some time at the cemetery about now, cleaning, repainting and polishing up the family tombs in preparation of laying fresh flowers for the special day.

The blessing of the graves in Hook and Ladder Cemetery will be at 2:00 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 31 since All Saints Day falls on a Sunday this year.

The official beginning of the Hook and Ladder Cemetery was on Feb.15, 1858 when three lots of ground, #1, #2 and #3 on the corner of 10th and Lafayette Streets were bought by Gretna Hook & Ladder Company No. 1 for the purpose of a firemen’s public burial ground. In January of 1882, 3 more lots, #4, #5 and #6 were purchased. As the decades passed, lots were sold to individuals beyond the firemen.

The cemetery today takes up most of the block, bounded by Lafayette, Newton, 10th and 11th Streets. Back then the cemetery block was considered the end of town since only farms, dairies and hunting grounds were past there.

Tombs in the cemetery range from very modest to much more ornate sites finished with granite or marble. Many of the tombs, especially in the “Old-Old” section of the cemetery are in very bad shape, some decrepit and falling down. The City of Gretna is in the process of taking over operations of the cemetery. The original non-profit status for the firemen’s organization has expired and the city has begun the process of becoming licensed by the Louisiana Cemetery Board.    

“We are looking forward to finalizing all legal work necessary to give the city authority over Hook and Ladder. It is a remarkable thread of history woven into the fabric of our community. Although the people have long been gone, we must insure that their history lives on,” Mayor Belinda Constant said.

Marcel Henry Lepine

We visited with Marcel Henry Lepine who serves as sexton, or caretaker at the cemetery. His job is to cut grass, cleanup and prepare for funerals. He is the opener and closer of the crypts.

“I just love being in here,” he said as we met in the cemetery. “It’s my place. My sister-in-law, Tina checks out the cemetery every Halloween to see if she can witness spirits or an aura which she never has if I am with her. She thinks that I’m too much a part of normal here and nothing will happen with me around,” Marcel said.

At 8 years-old, young Marcel was following his grandfather, sexton Marcel Peter Lepine Sr. around the cemetery to “help him.”

“My working career at Hook and Ladder goes back 22 years to when I was 15 years-old and was of legal age to be there. At 16 or 17, I could dig a grave in about an hour,” he said.  

Marcel Peter Lepine Sr.- Sexton from 1966-2012

The earliest ancestor that could be traced back to cemeteries in the Schmitt-Lepine family was an “unknown first name” Schmitt who it is said was “sexton” during the yellow fever epidemic.

The earliest known-name sexton was John Henry Schmitt, Marcel’s great great grandfather. He was followed by Henry John “Buck” Schmitt, Marcel’s maternal great grandfather who served until Marcel’s paternal grandfather, Marcel Peter Lepine Sr became sexton in 1966.

The whole family was in the funeral business. Marcel’s mother, Dolores Schmitt Lepine had been the “maitre d’ at Mothe’s Funeral Home” in Harvey and in 1983 was offered the opportunity to manage the Leitz-Eagan Funeral Home on Amelia Street. She accepted and the family moved into the living quarters of the funeral home.  

Dolores Schmitt Lepine

Due to the illness of her husband, Marcel Sr., Dolores Lepine became the first female sexton at Hook and Ladder Cemetery, circa 2000. When he recovered, Lepine Sr. went back to being sexton until his death in 2012 when his grandson and present sexton, Marcel Henry Lepine took over.

Marcel’s father Marcel Peter Lepine Jr. never took to the cemetery business. He worked during his teenage years at Hook and Ladder with his father, at that time building tombs and cleaning up during October each year. He never followed the family tradition of serving as sexton. 

Due to Covid-19, the community suffered a disappointing loss with the cancellation of what would have been the 8th Annual Hook and Ladder Cemetery Tour sponsored by the Gretna Historical Society.

The popular October event always starts with food at the Red Maple Restaurant, the only site on the block that is not occupied by the cemetery. Guests then embark on a guided tour throughout the historical cemetery. Proceeds from the tour go toward restoration of the cemetery.

The cemetery tour showcases some of the people who helped to shape Gretna in both character and history by having actors depict people buried there.

Marcel Peter Lepine Sr., sexton of the cemetery from 1966 until 2012 was featured on the 2019 tour. Peter DeBroeck was the actor who portrayed Lepine Sr.  

A prominent Gretna character with ties to this story, Charles Kerner was depicted on the 2018 tour. Portrayed by Scott Amacker, Kerner owned the well-known gambling establishment, Southport, located on the Orleans/Jefferson Parish line. The beautiful Amelia Street house that he built for his residence later became the Leitz Eagan Funeral Home and was where the Lepine family resided.   

If you decide to visit the cemetery, be respectful and remember that this is the final resting place for someone’s loved one. If you are interested in genealogy, there is a free genealogy site at › lou › jefferson › hookladdercemetery.

Part 2 will come out Wednesday, October 28 at 9am.