Holt Cemetery: How the other half dies in New Orleans
For a city so alive with culture, music and good-time vibes, New Orleans also, paradoxically, has always also had a fascination with its dead, as evidenced by its jazz funeral traditions and its grand cemeteries. But not every local citizen is afforded, or can afford, such a lavish departure from this mortal coil. For those frequently anonymous folk, Holt Cemetery was established by the city in 1879 on the site of land that had long been used to bury the poor. Originally measuring 400 feet by 600 feet, the burial ground is a potter’s field, where the destitute — the overwhelming majority of whom are black — are given the best farewell possible by their struggling families or, many times, by city or hospital workers, who have interred thousands upon thousands there. Unlike at New Orleans’ more ornate “cities of the dead,” the vast majority of burials there have been below ground.
Spanning seven acres today, Holt Cemetery underwent significant renovations in 2013 and 2014, with $450,000 being allocated for repairs and upgrades to its caretaker cottage, lighting, driveway, signage and fencing. Still, graves often fall into disrepair, bestowing upon the cemetery a ragged, cluttered and even haunting atmosphere.
- Arguably the most famous resident of Holt Cemetery is jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden, whose grave is unmarked but who is nonetheless recognized by a beautiful monument in the cemetery. Bolden died penniless in 1931.
- Holt Cemetery’s location — along City Park Avenue and adjacent to Delgado Community College in the Navarre section of the city’s Lakeview neighborhood — was selected because the ground lays on a relatively high ridge, which allows for below-ground burials without extensive interference from the city’s low water table.
- Because of its proximity to Delgado, Holt was, for a time, maintained by students in the school’s funerary program.
- Dr. Joseph Holt, the cemetery’s namesake, was an influential and even groundbreaking figure in New Orleans and Louisiana. Born in New Orleans in 1839, he studied medicine at Charity Hospital and went on to establish what became the universal system of maritime quarantine.
- Holt also served as a professor of obstetrics, the president of the state Board of Health, a surgeon in the Confederate Army and the president of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board. It was in the latter role that he broke ground on the city’s first sewer system.
- Holt died in 1922 at the age of 83. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
- A key development in Holt’s evolution occurred in 1887, when cemetery sexton J.B. Faget was tasked by the city to, according to a contemporary Times-Picayune article, “keep a record of the name, color, age, nativity, etc., of all persons interred … as well as the date of burial and such other information as may lead to the identity of such deceased.”
- Record-keeping has been sporadic and, at times haphazard, with volumes of records being lost or, as was the case during 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, reportedly destroyed.
- In 2007, a volunteer group comprised largely of local military veterans dedicated a memorial to the many Buffalo Soldiers buried at Holt.
A trip to Holt Cemetery can be both enthralling and eerie. Burial places there are marked with wooden crosses, hand-lettered planks, tipped and shattered stone monuments, and even unmarked mounds of earth. Ghost hunters frequent the grounds, grave-robbing has historically been rampant, and reports of Voodoo and Santería rituals there are numerous. Exposed bones and skulls, as well as the presence of countless religious votives and familial mementos, can make the cemetery seem surreal. But another sense also lingers in the air and between the gravesites at Holt: the knowledge that, despite their forlorn physical post-mortem state, the soul of each person interred there tells its own tale of life, individuals whose existences impacted at least someone in some way when they were alive, and therefore left his or her own indelible, eternal mark on the spirit of New Orleans.