A Final Resting Place in the Shade of the Family Tree A Letter from a Louisiana Graveyard

August 22, 1993|By ANN LOLORDO

OBERLIN LOUISIANA — Oberlin, La. -- At the juncture of two country lanes, the Sonniers have buried their dead.

Here in Allen Parish, amid the lush green fields of rice along State Highway 26, a sign points the way to a slip of pasture, rimmed by fence posts weathered gray. There, beyond rain rusted gates held fast with a wire hook, lie members of a Cajun clan who settled in this spit of central Louisiana more than a century ago.

This is America beyond the urban skyline and suburban sprawl, a sweep of country far from interstates and airports where fathers still live within sight of their daughters, and some traditions, like burying kin in a small family graveyard on the edge of a field, live as long as a great pin oak.

At the Sonnier Cemetery, whitewashed crosses, unmarked cement vaults and, in recent years, squares of polished marble distinguish married kin from blood relation, husband from wife, father from son. And while the headstones seem unremarkable, Ruby Robichaux mentions their orientation.

"The tombs are [supposed] to go east-west. These are north-south," says the 68-year-old widow, referring to a custom of burying the dead toward the rising sun.

It's a misalignment of unknown origin, and yet one not without some small footnote in history. For this is a family whose ancestors fled from the north, in the Acadian exile from Canada in the mid-1700s, and journeyed south to the bayous of a former French colony where the children of their children's children still speak in a rich, musical patois.

Tacked to a notice board at the Sonnier Cemetery, encased under glass, is a family tree, dating back 10 generations to the union of Louis Sonnier and Louise Bastinaud Jit Pelletier in 1684. It depicts a family with a penchant for procreating; that first coupling produced 13 children.

There are Sonnier men who outlived three wives and Sonnier fathers who baptized daughters Serenity, Charity and Purity. There are Sonnier women who married Bouttes and Fontenots and Sonnier sisters who never married. They are the sons and daughters of farmers, some of whom moved west during the Great Depression to work in the Texas oil fields or followed their husbands to better paying jobs in New Orleans. Some never left Swallow.

"You want to know how that graveyard got started?" asks Herman Sonnier, 71, who grew up not far from the cemetery in a wood house, long since torn down. "It was my great grandfather, Donat Sonnier."

At the time, before the turn of the century, the Sonniers were burying their kin in a country graveyard north of Oberlin. During a funeral, someone broke a picket off the cemetery fence "and the old man who had the graveyard over there, he had something to say about it, kinda raised hell," says Mr. Sonnier. "So my great grandpa said, 'that's not going to work.' "

From his 600-acre farm that yielded cotton, corn and sweet potatoes, Donat Sonnier (the Second and not to be confused with his father, son or grandson of the same name) carved out the 2-acre cemetery that bears his family name.

"There was no funeral homes [back then]," said Mr. Sonnier, who worked for a dollar a day building roads during the Depression and then moved to East Texas to earn a living from oil. "Put 'em on a board in the front room. My old man built a lot of caskets, out of cypress, and they would do it mostly at night in the barn."

Mr. Sonnier buried his parents in this cemetery, a grandson who died on the day he was born, and, last year, his wife, the former Hazel Marie Langley, whose photograph graces her tomb.

"I met her in Elton, La., on the Fourth of July at a rodeo," says Mr. Sonnier who, every other week or so, drives the 108 miles from his home in Needland, Tex. to visit his wife's grave. "I had a cousin from Swallow that was dating one of her sisters. . . . I guess it was love at first sight. I got married at 18 years old. We stayed together almost 52 years."

Over the years, as the family tree's branches multiplied, so did its seed, taking root in California, Tennessee, Indiana. A generation of families left Swallow, but some retired here. Others returned in death, shipped from Texas and elsewhere, to be buried in the cemetery.

Ruby Robichaux lives down the parish road from the cemetery in a dark-brick rancher, nestled among shade trees and overrun by hydrangeas blue and lilac.

"My mother was a Sonnier," says the former Miss Ruby Molitar, her husky Cajun lilt pronouncing the surname as though it were "Sonya."

Like her first cousin Herman, Mrs. Robichaux and others pay $10 a year to maintain the cemetery and ensure their place there. "If they don't pay their yearly dues, it'll cost them $50 for a plot," says Mrs. Robichaux, who buried her husband, Jerry David, in the graveyard one November almost nine years ago.

After living in New Orleans for years, the couple retired in this hamlet surrounded by flooded fields of rice.

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