We skipped off to New Orleans for the week after Christmas, and came home the day before New Years Eve. Skipped may not be the right term, more like wordlessly plodded. We had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch our flight, but the good thing is that we were in the city by 8 a.m., tightly clutching hot beverages and in shock from the cold. I wore Shawn’s heaviest coat the whole time and looked crazy in many of the photos, but I was mostly warm.
Holt was number one on my list of cemeteries to visit. It’s not the most talked about cemetery, it’s not fancy, or crumbling, or full of interesting vaults and crypts. Holt is it’s own kind of iconic New Orleans burial ground.
For one thing, all burials are in ground unlike the other city cemeteries. I know people say that it can’t be done because of the water table but they are successfully burying people here and the caskets are staying in the ground, so I think a lot of those suppositions are rooted in myths and urban legends. The vaults that you find in the other cemeteries are efficient at what they do. People decompose rapidly and with little fuss, and a year later it’s safe to place another body in the vault. However, coping burials are also popular there, where the plot is framed in concrete and the burial vault covered in gravel and dirt. When we went to Lafayette Cemetery it had rained all day and one of the ledger stones was broken in one of the family plots. I leaned over the fence for a better look and saw that the entire grave was filled with water, which horrified me for some reason. I’m not sure why Holt is able to do what it does if it’s true about the water table being so high and unforgiving.
Holt Cemetery is considered a potter’s field and a burial space for the indigent who can’t afford other cemetery sites. It was established in 1879 according to the Save Our Cemeteries website, and has been in operation ever since. It is still an active site. The morning that we arrived we pulled into the cemetery gates around 10 a.m. and saw workmen at the back digging graves…by hand. In all of the visits I’ve made to cemeteries in the South, that was something I’d never seen before, but I honestly don’t believe that they could get the equipment in there in order to do it any other way. The place is packed full, and you can barely walk through without knowing that you are stepping on someone’s grave.
At the back of the cemetery is a brick retort that looks like it was from an old crematorium. It has been locked shut, but the fact that it’s there remains a mystery. I’m not sure why it’s there or if there was a building around it at one time. It has graves crowded up against it on all sides.
Most of the headstones and markers here are all handmade. We saw raw wood, painted wood, plastic, a road sign with a person’s name painted on it, PVC piping, bricks, an oven rack, concrete, all kinds of fencing, and multiple statues- everything from a bunny to the Virgin Mary. Lots of flowers were on the graves in blue, black, and purple. A lot of stuffed animals were on graves, and even framed photos. It’s a bright space, but in the morning after a recent rain in the cold weather it was bleak and sad, with standing water at the curves of the road and in the drainage ditch that runs through the space, and squelching mud everywhere you stepped.
This cemetery was in the news last year because a young woman in New Orleans was going out after heavy rain and harvesting bones that she saw on the graves, and then posting them in a not so discreet fashion online. She was eventually apprehended, but was convinced that what she was doing wasn’t grave robbing since the bones were right there on top of the soil, and she wasn’t charging people for anything but the shipping when they wanted the items. (She was doing a brisk trade, as well.) Some people collect bones just because, and some people purchase or steal them for spell work and magic. Either way, it’s a good idea not to touch bones in cemeteries unless you’re certain it’s from an animal. I’ve picked up animal bones on cemetery walks and have a deer vertebrae in my car (I didn’t know where else to put it), but human bones…no. It’s safe to say that when you visit this city you will see bones in a cemetery. Just leave them there, they do tend to wash up sometimes. On our visit we saw bones at 3 different sites, but not at Holt Cemetery. More on that later.
Please visit this one if you go to New Orleans. It’s much more humble than the others, but certainly filled with love and sweet tributes everywhere you look.