In a city that can often feel like one giant necropolis, New Orleans’ Holt Cemetery sets itself apart in that 99 percent of its dead are buried below ground – despite a legendarily high water table.
For years the land had been informally designated as a site for potter’s graves before Dr. Joseph Holt officially established the cemetery in 1879. Primarily belonging to African-Americans, the plots have been handed down for generations, and remain in the hands of family members so long as they are well maintained. Family members are buried in wooden caskets that rapidly decompose, allowing for quick and continued reuse of the tiny plots.
Grave markers are handmade. ranging from everyday items like PVC pipes and garden fences, to painted fence posts and astroturf, to plastic headstones adorned with adhesive lettering. Mouldering teddybears and plastic flowers are common, chilling decorations left for children. At the cemetery’s center grows a massive oak tree, where cowrie shells, beads, beer, and other less traditional spiritual offerings can be found among the tree’s roots and branches.
Located within spitting distance of the sprawling and ostentatious Metairie Cemetery, the difference between the two is evident at first glance. In the vastly contrasting gulf between these two cities of the dead lies Holt’s unique and powerful ability to showcase that part of New Orleans so often omitted by the its famous cemetery tours.