Tag Archives: Holt Cemetery

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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In honor of Mardi Gras

New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the DeadNew Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead by Florence Mason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jammed with photographs and packed with fascinating information, this coffee-table book takes a seldom-seen perspective on graveyards. It doesn’t in any sense skimp on the history of the New Orleans dead, nor does it neglect the craftsmanship of the city’s memorials — but looks instead into the relationships the living maintain with their predecessors.

The relationships between the living and cemeteries has long fascinated me. In Death’s Garden, I collected together essays on how the living visit, use, maintain or neglect, and generally interact with the dead in their communities. Florence here focuses on similar relationships with the graveyards in and around the city, stretching out to include the Fleming Cemetery of Bayou Barataria.

Florence’s subjects range from the Day of the Dead celebrations in Louisiana, to the traditions of decorating graves on birthdays and other occasions, as well as visiting one’s ancestors just to gossip or serenade. At first I felt the chapters highlighting the living decorators or musicians were perhaps too intimate, probing too close to the losses these subjects had suffered, but in retrospect, I think it’s good to focus on the survivors. Too often in my own work, I’ve focused on the tragedies suffered by the dead, who are clearly past feeling them.

Florence is wise, I think, to choose these examples and show how we all could benefit from growing closer to the dead in our communities. He quite rightly points out that without a connection — or a use — for the neighborhood graveyard, the memorials become neglected, vandalized, and before long, an important historical monument is forever lost. New Orleans has its Save Our Cemeteries organization, but most communities are not that lucky. I hope Florence inspires his readers to become involved in cemetery preservation, whatever their reasons.

Florence is the author of the City of the Dead booklet on St. Louis Cemetery #1 (which I’ll review soon). While that booklet is absolutely required for anyone interested in graveyards, New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead provides a valuable perspective that is too rarely found anywhere else. In addition, Mason Florence’s beautiful photographs—both in color and infrared—stand up against any others in your collection. Very recommended.

The book is available on Amazon: New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead

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This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #4.