New Orleans' Crisis of Affordable Burial: a discussion at Holt Cemetery on All Saints Day
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
Wake teamed up with Our Mammy’s History and Genealogy on Monday, November 1st, 2021 for All Saints Day, to show the conditions at Holt Cemetery.
Holt was established in 1879 as a potter’s field, but transitioned to regular use in the 1960’s. Since then it has been in constant use and reached capacity at some point in the mid 1980’s. However, since there were no other solutions for affordable burial in the metro area, the cemetery continued to be used until capacity reached crisis proportions, where it remains today.
From the 1950’s until the 1970’s or later, Holt received multiple burials per day, sometimes as many as 20. This crisis of capacity compels the City to reuse graves and every new burial in Holt Cemetery involves the exhumation of at least one person. City of New Orleans Superintendent of Cemeteries Emily Ford estimates that every square foot of Holt Cemetery has been used for several burials. “We receive at least a few calls per week from family members hoping to find a loved one, only to be told that it has been too long and the grave is occupied by someone new.”
Despite this, families turn out in large numbers throughout the year to tend to the current graves of the loved ones and All Saints Day is a great time to see families and friends gathering to pay respects and bring offerings to the deceased. Gaynell Brady, owner and operator of Our Mammy’s History and Genealogy has created educational materials and conducts outreach and community education about the history of Holt Cemetery and the families buried there. Through her work on the genealogy of her own family she learned that she has over a dozen family members buried at Holt. “Holt is the resting place of thousands of African American people and continues to hold our community, despite overuse and underinvestment. Holt families have managed to make it a monumental landscape to Black history and culture.”
Affordable burial is a social justice issue in New Orleans. Strong religious traditions and a robust burial and memorialization culture means that families need access to affordable space to bury their dead, and there is simply no more room. Emily Ford makes clear that “Holt unquestionably needs to close and new cemetery space opened to serve the community. The volume of people who are at-need [a technical term meaning seeking immediate burial] and cannot afford dignified burials is enormous, not only because of Covid deaths, but also because of violent deaths and infant deaths.”
Gaynell Brady and Liz Dunnebacke provided information about the conditions of Holt Cemetery on Monday, November 1st in honor of All Saints Day.