Grave Offerings in New Orleans

The ReposedThe Reposed by William K. Greiner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Most books of gravestone photographs focus on monuments to the wealthy. For the most part, William Greiner turns his camera on mementos left on the graves of the poor, documenting faded silk flowers in an empty wooden frame, blue fish gravel spread as a grave blanket, an amputee doll, a tatty white dove on a red wreath. The acute angles he chooses comment on the sur-reality of the offerings he finds. The short focal lengths used in many of the photos (especially the cover image of the Styrofoam heart full of blue silk carnations) give them an intense three-dimensionality that’s almost threatening. This book manages to be simultaneously cheerful and scary.

I met Greiner, a resident of New Orleans, by chance at a book signing one Halloween in New Orleans. When I asked which graveyard he recommended I should visit in order to see a true New Orleans observance of the Day of the Dead, he suggested Holt Cemetery. Hidden behind a community college and a police academy, this graveyard isn’t impressive like its swankier neighbors in Metairie. Originally founded as burial ground for the city’s indigent, interment in Holt has remained very inexpensive. In celebration of this, Holt is filled with handmade monuments, many of them exuberant in the face of grief.

While the photos in The Reposed are not identified by graveyard (only by city, unfortunately), I suspect that many of the photos labeled “New Orleans” were in fact taken at Holt. It’s clear that brave cheer struck a chord in Greiner. He discovered its kith in graveyards all across Louisiana, but I suspect, if we looked, we could find kin in any cemetery outside the dictatorship of the lawnmower.

Mortician and poet Thomas Lynch notes in his introduction that “the last word belongs not to death but to life.” The living have much to say in these heartfelt, if shabby, memorials. Analysis provides no answers, but inspires sympathy deep enough to bridge the gap between the viewer, the survivors, and the reposed.

I’m giving this 3 stars rather than 4 simply because I prefer sculpture to handmade monuments. It’s a reflection of my preferences, rather than the quality of this book.

An earlier version of this review appeared in Morbid Curiosity #4.

You can still get copies on Amazon: The Reposed

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