Magnificent trees grace new cemetery

Harold LaCour
Over 100 stately oak trees adorn the grounds of Oak Lane Memorial Park in Prairieville. It is the first new cemetery opened in Ascension Parish in over 50 years.

Oak Lane Memorial Park in Prairieville bills itself as “Ascension’s Most Beautiful Cemetery.”  It is situated on a 38.8 acre property on Hwy. 73 that had previously been the home of Doctor Carey Phillips, a local dentist who passed away on July 4, 2006.

The story behind Oak Lane is very much one of trees.  One hundred and six of them, all Live Oaks, skillfully planted in stately patterns. Residents of Prairieville have admired these beautiful trees for decades even if they did not know who lived in the stately old house at the end of the lane. 

It is known that the house was built by Dr. Phillips in 1935, but the trees predate the house by half a century or more. While the house is 64 years old, the Live Oaks are at least 100 and may be more than 200 years old. Research into the history is ongoing. Antidotal accounts say that the 106 trees were planted in the 1890s by a German man, but his name is not yet known. Chances are that there was another house, long forgotten, on the site many years ago. 

George Bonfanti, a real estate developer from Baton Rouge, purchased the property two years ago at auction. Bonfanti said that he bought the place without any clear plans about how to develop it.

He had recently completed the beautiful Seven Oaks Subdivision and initially thought that this could become another large-lot development. But, after thinking over the prospects and possibilities, he realized that most of the trees would have to be cut down in order to make another subdivision. He searched for some other use for the property, and, after looking at an aerial photograph of the area, thought “why not a cemetery.” As it turned out, this was a very smart choice as he realized that all of the established cemeteries in Ascension Parish were either full or near full, and Oak Lane Memorial Park is the first new cemetery opened in this parish in over fifty years. Of course, the trees will stay.

Plans for the cemetery include a two-acre lake complete with ducks, hills and paths around the property for walking and bike riding, and swings under the oak trees for children, and also an area for veterans. Bonfanti wants the cemetery to be a place for the living to enjoy as well as a place of rest for the deceased.

“I want this to be a place that families come to visit their loved ones, and a place where they feel welcome and comfortable,” he said. 

Building on the idea of Oak Lane being a place for the living to feel comfortable, Bonfanti is planning to encourage people to celebrate special events on the property. The first of these events was a recent 4th of July celebration. There were free hotdogs, snowballs, popcorn, cotton candy, and inflatable rides for the children. All in all, a lot of fun for the whole family.

Future events that are now in the planning stage include an egg hunt for Easter, a carol sing or a passion play for Christmas, picnics for Labor Day, etc.  Ideas for events are just beginning to sprout. 

Perpetual care for the graves of loved ones and the grounds of the park are assured, Bonfanti said. Ten percent of the proceeds of every plot sold will go into an endowment fund dedicated to the care and upkeep of the cemetery indefinitely into the future.

Walter Leftwich, the primary salesperson at Oak Lane, will be familiar to many people in the Prairieville area.  He was with State National Life Insurance from 1973 to 1999.  Walter was also a member of the East Ascension Sportsman League since 1959 and a member of the Louisiana Wildlife Federation for 40 years.  In 1969 he organized the Prairieville Volunteer Fire Department and was instrumental in acquiring their first piece of equipment, a 1947 Ford convertible. (Red, of course.)  In 1972 he introduced bingo at the fire station.  He is now chairman of the board of Fire District 3.  Leftwich also organized the first fair for St. John’s Church in Prairieville.  Although he really enjoys his work at the cemetery, Leftwich said that he spends most of his time fishing.

The white two story house that Dr. Phillips lived in is being remodeled. It will serve as offices for the Memorial Park, and along with the classic old barn, will contribute to the air of tranquility and timelessness. 

Oak Lane Memorial Park is still very new. Only a few hundred plots have been sold so far, and they have had only one burial.  But the grounds are open and the public is invited to come by and enjoy the beauty of the place. Anyone interested in purchasing space will get a tour of the grounds on a golf cart, and will be offered, for a limited time, “two for the price of one.”

The address is 15304 Hwy 73, Prairieville, LA 70769.  Phone 225-744-8788 or 225-936-2111 for information.

The staff at Oak Lane Memorial Park is excited to show the public the new facility. From left are Karen Ford, Chris Lacombe, George Bonfanti, Greg Bonfanti, Jan Babin.