Warren Kelly leans his well-used shovel against a gravestone and stands up straight for the first time in hours. Break time.
He walks carefully toward the road, his small feet finding a winding path between the gravesites. Hand-lettered wooden markers read "Love is Forever" and "We Miss You, Mama." One small cement marker lies flat at the head of a grave, painted white. Across the top is written, simply, "At Rest."
Kelly's red Ford Ranger pickup is parked on the unpaved road that curves through Holt Cemetery. The graveyard opened in 1879 as a burial ground for the "indigent dead." Today it abuts the back edge of the Delgado Community College parking lot.
When the cemetery first opened, plots were given away. Then the city sold plots, until about a decade ago. Now, the only burials allowed in Holt are for those with existing family plots. The current price for burial is $250, according to the city's division of cemeteries, which owns and maintains Holt and six other cemeteries. Only wood coffins are allowed.
Kelly isn't a cemetery employee. He spends his nights, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., supervising janitorial staff at a local hotel. But for the past 19 years, Kelly, who's 59, has been at Holt Cemetery keeping his own sort of office hours -- 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. almost every day of the year, with a break in the afternoon when the sun gets too hot.
He pops open a 16-oz. tallboy of Natural Light and climbs inside the truck's cab, with its plastic green troll and spotted Dalmatian on the dashboard above the small imitation-brass sign that reads "Non-Smoking Room." Behind him is a truck bed piled full of wood, tools and paint cans. Propped on the open tailgate is a neat handmade sign that reads, "Year round grave cleaning, painting & box building, headboards, adding of sand, upkeeping, etc. Call Kelly beep 213-3123."
Kelly knows this place intimately -- not only the graves and the people who visit them, but the graveyard's other regulars -- its birds, insects and trees. "See that one tree -- skinny one, straight up?" he says, pointing. "That's my favorite tree. It's got pecans." Which is why Kelly can often be found snacking on pecans whenever he's sitting, waiting for a customer.
But he's not doing a whole lot of sitting right now. It's his most hectic season -- the days leading up to All Saints' Day, the Nov. 1 holiday traditionally associated with grave-cleaning. "On All Saints' Day, it will be busy, busy, busy out here, baby," says Kelly. "They'll have picnic tables, cold drinks and sandwiches." Teenagers will show up with shovels and rakes, willing to work for tips, the way Kelly made his first money here nearly half a century ago.
Annually, on Nov. 1, this place sees the best turnout in the city. "Holt is one of the most well-attended cemeteries on All Saints' Day, hands-down," says Robert Florence, local cemetery expert and author of New Orleans Cemeteries: Life in the Cities of the Dead. Expect to see generations of families, he says, carrying the traditional yellow mums along with rakes, shovels, hoes, pitchforks, rakes, mops and buckets. Other families will show up at the cemetery only to celebrate, having completed their work beforehand.
And so, as the holiday creeps closer, Kelly cannot afford to fall behind. "Where the shovel's at, I'm going to finish that today," he says, opening up a new can of beer. "I'm just waiting for it to cool down." By the end of the week, he'll be skipping his beer break completely, repairing as many as three graves a day.
The gravediggers in their muddy boots began their work yesterday. By early Saturday morning, Holt Cemetery held three empty graves, each one 2 1/2 feet wide, 6 feet long, and about as deep as a gravedigger's waist is high, says Warren Ernest, who's 38 and has been digging graves in the city's cemeteries for nearly half his life. His colleague Daniel Jackson has been doing this work even longer.
The first hearse and procession drive away at about 10 a.m. Ernest looks down at the brocaded gray casket. "Gray -- more than likely a man," he says, scooping up a shovelful of dirt, heavy with clay and earthworms. Sometimes there'll be crawfish in the soil. If they dig six feet down, they'll hit water, he says. They can hear it below them when they get close.
Ernest's shovel slices into another pile of dirt, this one topped by a dozen white gloves, left by the pallbearers as a memento. Sometimes the dirt is wet with beer or wine -- friends giving the deceased a last drink. In the old days, people used to throw in brooches or medallions, something rarely done anymore.
Holt's clay soil sticks to his shovel. The soil here, like that in the other graveyards, has a unique odor to it. "It's more like a chemical," says Ernest, the result of embalming fluid mixing with the dirt.
The bones, he says, never go away. Any bones they find while digging go into a shallow hole right below the new casket. A human body will deteriorate within a year in an above-ground tomb, but down here in the soil it takes about six years, Ernest estimates. Anything less than that and the gravediggers might need to use a long iron tool known as a stiff hook. That's a less-than-pleasant task. "Freddy Krueger ain't got nothing on what we see," he says with a grimace.
The next hearse arrives and leaves. The deceased was an 81-year-old lady. Ernest and Jackson each take an end of her casket and wrap a strap around it. Then, grabbing the strap's loose ends, they pick up the casket and lower it into the grave. The remaining grave is only a few rows away.
The last hearse drives in, followed by a lengthy funeral procession. Mourners in black emerge from the cars and trail the group of pallbearers carrying 28-year-old Latoya McGary's light-blue casket toward the third empty grave.
About 20 years ago, McGary's mother was stabbed to death and buried here in the Spencer-McGary family gravesite, which is also the final resting place for both her grandparents and her great-grandparents. The family plans to buy a stone marker soon, with all of the names carved onto it.
McGary was tall and thin, with long hair and brown eyes. "Beautiful girl," says her aunt Ann Glover. Her life was cut too short, cousin Tabitha Glover explains tearfully. "She got killed -- gunshot to the head."
Deborah Harris is the last to leave her niece's gravesite. She watches while the gravediggers lower the casket into place. "The birds make it serene here," she says, listening to the chirping coming from nearby trees.
She walks back toward the road, clutching some flowers in her hand. "They call this the potter's field," she says, explaining how the name came from the biblical story in which Judas, after betraying Christ, threw onto the temple floor his 30 pieces of silver. The priests then used that silver to buy land from the potter to bury the indigent.
"I believe that this is a place of hope," Harris says quietly, "for people who couldn't afford to bury their loved ones any other way."
The gravediggers are still mounding the dirt on today's three graves when James Johnson drives into Holt in his old brown Ford truck. He stops almost smack in the cemetery's center, near a group of massive oak trees draped with Spanish moss.
Johnson is keeping a promise to his fiancee. "I didn't know her parents or her people, but this means something to her," he says, working at the hard soil with a pick he borrowed from Warren Kelly. "That's her family. They're not forgotten."
Her family has a wide triple plot underneath this big old tree and another single one adjacent to it, all with wooden gravemarkers that have been worn blank by wind and rain and sun. Fresh concrete blocks now mark the outlines of each plot, and soon the soil will be neat, with new silk flowers, says Johnson. Then he'll get the names and the dates from his fiancee and handpaint them onto the markers with enamel paint. He hopes to have it all completed by All Saints' Day.
Johnson's sister, Jacqueline Blair, rode along with him because she likes to visit cemeteries. She strolls around while her brother works, looking at each gravestone. "A lot of these were Army men and women, I guess," she says, pointing at the white-stone veterans' headstones seen all over Holt. The government buys these, she says. One like it marks her brother's grave in Mississippi.
She never knows what's going to happen on All Saints' Day, Blair says. Last year, she was in the back of her house and, as it was getting dark, she heard a banging on the front door. She says that she could see the image of a tall man in a white shirt who looked exactly like her late brother-in-law. But when she got to the door, no one was there. "It's like they all come back to visit us," she says. She agrees with the idea that graves are cleaned on All Saints' Day because the spirits come back that day and take a look around.
According to the official Catholic church tradition, All Saints' Day commemorates canonized saints. But in New Orleans, people of all faiths celebrate it as a day to pay their respects to the dead, says Sylvester Francis, who heads up the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme neighborhood and has recently begun hosting an annual All Saints' Day second-line parade to honor the recently deceased.
Francis grew up Catholic, watching priests bless the tombs on this holiday. But he thinks it would be unfair to pretend that one church owns the day. "All Saints' Day may be a Catholic day, but it's a New Orleans tradition," Francis says.
Back in Holt Cemetery, Warren Kelly looks in his rearview mirror and sees two of his regular customers pull up, mother and daughter Claudia Coleman and Maila Butler. Butler lays a bouquet of red roses on the grave next to Kelly's upright shovel. They're for her grandmother -- Coleman's mother -- Lizzie Griffin Butler, who died on May 31.
Griffin Butler had for years kept this same gravesite clean in honor of her own mother, brother and a cousin, who are all buried here. Now those grave-cleaning duties fall to Coleman and her daughter. They, in turn, hire Kelly to help keep the site looking tidy. "I can't bury anyone," says Kelly, "but I can clean the grave and paint it and take care of it." In Holt Cemetery, that's a vital service. Because if the grave's markings rot away, the family gravesite can disappear into weeds. That's what happened to cornet player Buddy Bolden's grave after his burial in plot C-623 in 1931. A few years ago, a big stone Bolden monument were erected here in Holt Cemetery, but no one knows where he was actually laid to rest.
To Coleman, the grave upkeep is partly for herself and partly for her late mother. "It's to let her know that she always will be loved," Coleman says. "And for me to know that I can always love her and do these things for her."
Maila Butler attends Delgado, and so she stops by a few times a week. Today the cemetery is busier than usual, she says. "Usually when I come here, I'm the only one here." Except for Warren Kelly, she says -- he's always here.
The acorns crunch underfoot as two families enter from different ends of Holt Cemetery and walk toward the oak trees in the middle of the graveyard.
Darryl Crawford says that this place is a vast improvement from a few years ago. "It was a mess," he says. "The grass was over our heads at one time." The weed-cutting came courtesy of the city's traffic court's alternative sentencing program, which now sends traffic violators here to work, supervised by the people from the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association and the volunteer group New Orleans Cares.
Today, Crawford and his 18-year-old son, Derrick Robinson, are going to clean this site and then repair the frame and its wooden headstone, which has a bingo card on it, because his mother, Mary Crawford, was wild for bingo.
Crawford gestures at his son. "He just asked me, 'Do you want to be buried here?'" says Crawford, pointing at his family grave. The answer is yes. "That's where my mother is," Crawford explains.
Robinson shakes his head. He would rather be cremated and kept in a jar in the backyard or something, he says. "Like Tupac," says Crawford. "His mama has him sitting on the coffee table." The two laugh and start pulling weeds around the grave.
On the other side of the big oaks, Alvin and Vernessa Johnson and two young grandchildren are gathered around the grave of Vernessa's mother, Lucille Washington, whose name is listed on a piece of slate that came from a chimney. The engraving took Alvin two days of painstaking work at their kitchen table in 1995.
Vernessa has been visiting this grave twice a month since her mother died in 1968. The couple was married in 1971, and Alvin never knew his mother-in-law. But he started visiting Holt when he and Vernessa were still just dating. "I remember taking a bus here and taking care of it," he says. He did it both to keep Vernessa happy and to help himself get over his fear of graveyards.
His wife never had any fear. "I guess I've always been interested in death and dying," she explains. She was young when her mother died, she says, and had always wondered what they did with her body, to the point where she took a course in death and dying and then apprenticed at a mortuary.
Today, their grandchildren Eric and Amber Young are learning where their great-grandmother is. That's important for another, very practical reason, says Vernessa. "If they get married, and if debt come, they will always know they have a place to put a loved one," she says.
Soon, an older model brown Ford is headed toward the same oak trees. James Johnson has returned, this time, with his fiancee, Carolyn Smith. She sits on an overturned five-gallon bucket while Johnson does a little more work on the graves. "Hear that buzzing?" says Smith. It's comes from a giant wasps' nest hanging from the next big tree. That's been there awhile, she says.
She stands up for a minute and adjusts a little pair of praying hands in the big triple plot. "This is the Smith family grave," she says. "I've got two newborns out here and my sister has one." Also here are her mother, father, grandfather, two brothers. Then came the late 1980s. "My nephews were being shot down like flies -- six of them within six months," she says. That's why her family expanded to this triple plot, in order to accommodate all those burials.
Smith is the youngest of 17 kids -- almost all of them will be here on All Saints' Day, paying respect to their mother. "My mama always loved this grave because it's under these big old oak trees," Smith says. "But we got too many people in there. I just know it's overcrowded."
For her part, she would rather be buried elsewhere. "I'll meet them in heaven," she says. "But I don't want to be here, me."
James Johnson honks and waves as he drives his brown truck toward the Delgado parking lot. Warren Kelly waves from where he stands, by his truck's driver's-side door. Pecan shells litter the ground around him.
Kelly first came here to hustle for tips on All Saints' Day when he was a teenager living in the Calliope housing project. His mama died while he was in high school, and right after that he was drafted for Vietnam. There, he says, soldiers like him learned that sleeping on top of the mounded graves would keep you dry, even if the water level rose during the night.
Here at Holt, he's seen plenty of veterans like himself receive a military burial, complete with six- or 21-gun salutes and a flag raised on the cemetery flagpole. "They bury 'em real nice," he says.
Across from the flagpole stands a new stone monument that lists nearly 500 veterans who are buried here, in alphabetical order from Charles Adams to Cornelius A. Youngblood. It will be officially dedicated this year on All Saints' Day, says Kelly.
In the fading light, a freight locomotive passes on a nearby track and blows its horn, prompting a loud burst of chirping in the cemetery's trees. "When it's dark, the birds come out, start eating the worms," Kelly says. There will be doves, crows, sparrows, robins, snow-white pelicans, now and then a few canaries. Even a bald eagle, he says, which likes to sit on top of the biggest oak tree -- the one with the wasps' nest.
Kelly walks a few steps down the cemetery road, looking up at the different birds in the trees and on the ground. Tonight, as usual, night is falling and he's here alone in this cemetery.
To some people, that might seem eerie -- but Kelly doesn't mind. "Dead people can't do you no harm, baby," he says. "You got to watch the ones that's alive."