Delgado A-Z: Funeral Services Program Part II

By: Dee Shedrick
Broken headstones, exposed bones, unmarked graves and overgrown grass used to describe Holt Cemetery nestled behind Delgado Community College. Today, local and national volunteers are committed to the cleanup and maintenance of Holt Cemetery and Delgado's very own Assistant Professor of Funeral Services Bobbiann Lewis is one of those volunteers. Lewis believes it is her responsibility to maintain the upkeep of Holt. "People were afraid to visit the cemetery because of its condition. We have seen exposed bones and skulls and people shouldn't have to see stuff like that--you won't see that at the bigger cemeteries," said Lewis. Not only is Lewis an instructor, but she is also a graduate of Delgado’s Funeral Services program, class of 1989. Lewis teaches a course called “The Dynamics Of Grief” to the maximum number of 13 students who are selected into the program each year and a field trip to Holt Cemetery is part of her lesson plan.

Painted Holt Cemetery Sign
Owned by the city, Holt Cemetery opened in 1879 to replace Locust Grove Nos. 1 and 2 that closed and were demolished to build the Thomy Lafon school and playground, located Uptown. Lafon has also been torn down since then and replaced with the Harmony Oaks apartments. Holt is one of New Orleans' oldest cemeteries and was built with poor families in mind. For the cost of $450, a family can bury their loved ones, but with one catch--the families are responsible for maintaining their own gravesites.

Hand-made Tombstone
Holt Cemetery is one of the few graveyards where burial graves are under ground. Supposedly, gravediggers can only dig about four feet into the earth because of New Orleans' low sea level. The cemetery is very unique and does not follow the standard manicured landscaping of other private or corporate owned cemeteries. At Holt you will find handmade markers and plots outlined by anything a family could get their hands on like, pipes, bricks and garden fencing. Holt is named after Dr. Joseph Holt who was instrumental in gaining control of one of the worse yellow fever epidemics that cost many New Orleanians their lives.

Pipe-lined Gravesite
 Dr. Holt became president of the state board of health in 1884 after his predecessor failed to gain control of the yellow fever epidemic that had already killed more than 4,000 people. Yellow fever is an infection that spreads through the body causing jaundice, fever, vomiting, internal bleeding,  organ failure and death. The virus spreads from person-to-person through mosquito bites that are more prevalent during the summer time. It is believed that the viral infection came from infected sailors who sailed from other tropical climates, for example, South America, to do business here in New Orleans. Attempts were made to control the epidemic and treat the sick with bloodletting and drinking large doses of carbolic acid and/or quinine, but those attempts were unsuccessful.

Moss Draped Oak Tree Provides Shade for Graves
Another attempt to put a stop to the disease came all the way from the White House. The United States' 19th president, Rutherford Hayes, signed the Quarantine Act of 1878, a law that prevented ships from coming to any shore until passing an inspection that determined that its crew members were disease-free. If they failed the test, the ships, passengers and cargo were quarantined.  Dr. Holt realized how unrealistic and detrimental it would be to the economy if that was the only solution to this horrific problem. So he came up with the idea to treat the victims of the fever and fumigate the ships they were travelling in. John Kendall’s book, History of New Orleans, outlines the steps of his treatment strategy:

"Briefly described, the new system, inaugurated early in June, 1885, comprised the following procedures: Wetting all woodwork, ballast, clothing, bedding, etc., with a solution of bichloride of mercury, 1 to 1,000. After that treatment, all textile fabrics were subjected to heat in a drying chamber provided with coils of steam pipe. (Later a device was added to introduce steam into the chamber, both to secure greater penetration and to guard against fire among the fabrics under treatment.) Forcing into the holds freshly generated sulphur fumes drawn from a battery of furnaces (on a special tugboat) by a powerful rotary exhaust blower driven by a steam engine. After complete disinfection, vessels with all on board were detained long enough to cover the incubation period of yellow fever."

Dr. Holt was highly praised for single-handedly dismantling the "maritime quarantine" so that business deals could resume as quickly as possible. The book also stated that, "Certain improvements in the 'system' were introduced later, but so far as the main object of keeping out yellow fever was concerned, its success was immediate and complete." Holt cemetery became the final resting stop for many yellow fever victims; however, they were not the only residents buried in this historical landmark.

Old Crematory Oven Located on the Cemetery Property
 Coronet player Buddy Bolden (Charles Joseph 1877-1931), also known as King Bolden, was also buried in Holt Cemetery in plot c-623. Although we have no idea of the exact location of his grave because of poor record keeping, a monument was placed in the graveyard in honor of the famous Jazz musician. Bolden started out as a bandleader and performed around the city in the historic Storyville (Red Light District) with his own musical ensemble, the Eagle Band. Bolden suffered with bouts of alcoholism and eventually determined insane and committed into a mental institution where he died. He is regarded as one of the pioneers of Jazz and a street bears his name, Buddy Bolden Place that runs near the cemetery.

Monument for Buddy Bolden
Buddy Bolden Place That Runs Near Delgado's Building 1
Another notable musical character buried in the cemetery is New Orleans singer, Jessie Hill who wrote and sang the popular R&B hit "Ooh Poo Pah Doo"  that was released in 1963. Hill was born in the Ninth Ward and got his start as a drummer for our own pianist, Professor Longhair. Later, he formed a band called the House Rockers and moved to California where he wrote songs for Willie Nelson, Sonny and Cher and Ike and Tina Turner. He eventually returned to New Orleans as a taxicab driver, driving a black Cadillac he named “The Poo Cab.” Drinking and drugs were no stranger to Hill who was never able to release another hit song, unlike his horn playing grandson, Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty.

It is also worth mentioning Chester Jones who was also laid to rest in Holt Cemetery. Jones died at 71in September 1984 and is the father of Benny Jones Sr., who founded the local Treme Brass Band. Jones was a former middleweight boxer and Jazz drummer that played regularly at Preservation Hall.  

It doesn't matter to Bobbiann Lewis if the deceased are famous or not. Lewis is passionate and committed to teaching her students that after a person dies, the responsibility of their remains still continues, even long after their burial. So incorporating a Service Learning aspect to student's curriculum was inevitable (Service Learning integrates community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience).  "The process of grieving does not end at disposition--we need to be more focused on continued dignity," said Lewis.


  1. Fascinating!
    And, just one more thing which makes New Orleans such and interesting and unique place.

  2. Great blog! Would you mind if I link this on my photo page? I visited Holt at the end of March and this answers many questions I had about the place and its history.