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UL Lafayette remembers acclaimed author Gaines with memorial service

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Ernest J. Gaines will be interred Saturday among the graves of his ancestors on the former sugar cane plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish where he was born.

Gaines, the internationally acclaimed author of “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” and “A Lesson Before Dying,” died Nov. 5. The former writer-in-residence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was 86.

La Louisiane, the University’s magazine, profiled Gaines in 1994 after he won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Award. He said in the interview he was fixated on saving the cemetery that will now be his final resting place.

“The greatest obsession in my life right now is that I can own and preserve the cemetery where my people are buried for the past 100 years.” Many of the graves – he estimated there were no less than 200 people buried there – were without “marks,” or tombstones.

Kathleen Thames, the article’s author, wrote: “There was a time when Gaines wanted his own epitaph to state, ‘He was a good man who wrote well.’

“I think I’ve changed that to, ‘To lie with those who have no marks,’” Gaines told her. 

In a statement following Gaines’ death, University President Dr. Joseph Savoie cited the author’s initial wishes for his epitaph, but suggested he was more than a “good man who wrote well.”

Gaines “was also an extraordinary and inspiring figure in the American literary landscape,” Savoie said.  “He was a believer in the power of words to inspire unflinching, honest conversations about painful corners of our collective past.”

The University remembered Gaines during a public memorial service Monday in Edith Garland Dupré Library, the home of the Ernest J. Gaines Center. The center holds many of his first-edition works and original manuscripts.

After Gaines’ died, the center eulogized its namesake as “a towering man with a gentle voice” and an “inspiration.”

Funeral services will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday at Hall Davis and Sons, 9348 Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge. Gaines’ family will receive visitors at the funeral home from 4-6 p.m. Friday and from noon to 1 p.m. on the day of the services.

Following the 1994 La Louisiane profile, Gaines purchased the cemetery where his ancestors are interred. He bought and moved Mount Zion Baptist Church to the property as well.

He’ll be buried there Saturday among those who have no marks.


Photo credit: The Ernest J. Gaines Center / University of Louisiana at Lafayette