By RICK BRAGG
NEW ORLEANS --
In a graveyard where rows of crosses lean left and right, where
one-inch-thin marble headstones bow to the dirt or tilt toward the sky and misspelled missives
to the dead are inked onto rotted plywood markers, Cleveland Cobb spent a long time making sure
he got the flowers just right.
Cobb, 75, first
pounded the dirt of the family plot as smooth as he could with the flat
of his shovel,
then, with his hands, scooped a hollow place just big enough to root a small clutch of white flowers.
he said, in explanation. "Mary. I like to see her grave looking good. Nothing
else I can
do for her."
bears other names. Here, in this obscure cemetery in a city that lists
its graveyards in
tourist guidebooks because of their beauty and history, the dead are housed not in ornate crypts but
buried in the soil, the bones of generations -- six, eight, more -- mingling in a single hole.
"I got a daughter
in here, too," Cobb said. "She was 12, no, she was 7. Got hit by a car."
some water on the flowers, perfectly straight, and after a little while he looked up, embarrassed.
"Now," he said, "why can't I recall that child's name?"
Then, as if in
penance, he went back to his knees and fussed some more with the little
dirt in Holt Cemetery, where his family, too many to recall, sleep.
Sunday was All
Saints' Day, a day to honor the dead, and in New Orleans this Roman Catholic
holiday is embraced by Protestants, Jews, everyone, it seems. People bring food, sit in the shade
and visit in the long, granite rows of old and new crypts, what people here call cities of the dead.
Because the water table is only a few feet beneath the surface, it is necessary to inter most people
above ground -- everyone except the poor, who must rest in the muck.
Marble and granite
are expensive, but dirt is just dirt. Here in Holt Cemetery, established
boneyard for paupers in 1879, people like Cobb cannot change the fact that, in death as in life,
people with money can sleep easier. But all around this ragged place on this day for the dead are
signs of love, honor and respect, signs that rival anything the richer people do in their manicured
cities of fresh-cut flowers on polished stone.
If richer, older
cemeteries are a record of New Orleans society, Holt Cemetery is a symbol
potholed streets, its peeling shotgun houses, its un-air-conditioned churches, bingo halls, blue-collar
social clubs and beer joints.
Just a few steps
from where Cobb, a retired truck driver, knelt by his mother and daughter,
75-year-old Luella Marshall limped slowly away from a small but brand-new brass headstone
inscribed with her husband's name. A young man, one of her great-nephews, held her hand,
"If my husband
was the one living, I know he'd be out here today, seeing about me," said
Marshall, whose husband died last year from a blood clot.
headstone -- "Edward Marshall, U.S. Army, World War II, Born Oct. 7, 1927,
June 27, 1997" -- tells only a little about him. In the hot sun of the afternoon -- the only shade here is
from a few oaks, gnarled with age, shrouded in Spanish moss but fed by soil enriched with an untold
bounty of bodies -- she told the things about him that mattered.
"He was a beautiful
man," Mrs. Marshall said. "He treated me like a baby. If we was ever in
house, we was in the same room, always together. If I washed the clothes, he'd put them on the line.
If we cooked, he'd cook one thing and I'd cook another thing, just so we could be in the kitchen."
is so bad now, she said, it is hard to tend the graves right, to make this
annual trek to
pull weeds and smooth the ground over her husband and other people she loves. But Mrs. Marshall,
who spent her lifetime caring for other people's children and ailing loved ones as what she calls "a
sitter," swears she will find a way to care a little while longer for the man who made life sweet.
"As long as I
can put one foot down in front of the other, I will be out here to visit
my husband," she
marker was designed to be laid flat on the ground, but she has it propped
people can see it better.
as poets and other intellectuals have often written, has seen more death
other American cities, perhaps because it predates them, because disease, floods, storms and war
have ravaged the city since its beginning, in the early 1700s.
Holt is a relatively
new cemetery, having been built in the late part of the 19th century, but
thousands of graves and uncounted bodies buried one atop the other. People tending the graves said
a family has to wait at least two years before burying someone in the same plot in the city-owned
"You can put
them in, as their bones decay," said Sidney Scott, as he painstakingly
used gold paint
and a tiny brush to trace the names of a faded, weather-worn headstone. "Some people call it a
potter's field, but that's not what it is." That would mean the people buried here were unwanted,
forgotten, and that would be wrong, said Scott, a maintenance man at a church.
"Momma and Daddy
taught me to love," he said, when asked why he came out each year on All
Saints' Day to make these graves look nice, to make them look remembered.
his father, died in 1958. Since then, Scott's father has been joined in
that grave by a
grandmother, two brothers and a niece. Because almost every inch of ground is used, only the
people whose families are buried here can bury others here.
"I think they
like it," Scott said, as he finished painting in the names. He was referring
to the dead.
"At least, no one's come back and told me they didn't." He smiled at that.
People used to
do more, on All Saints' Day and the days leading up to it, said Lillie
Lewis, 72, and
her sister, Ara Dozier, 74. They came to tend the grave that holds their mother, two grandmothers, a
brother, another brother's first wife and "two babies."
"The Lord took them," Ms. Dozier said.
She promised her mother, before her death, she would tend the graves on All Saints' Day.
"Momma used to
drive us here, and we'd have a picnic and stay all day," Ms. Dozier said.
cemetery would be crowded with people, eating, talking, enjoying life as they remembered the lives
of the dead.
People still do, but not as much. "They come but they don't stay," Ms. Dozier said.
She remembered a sweet potato vine that used to grow here. She wondered if it was still there.
Like many people
here, there seemed no sadness in them. Mourning is not what All Saints'
for, people said, certainly not here, where people leave behind bingo cards and even a loved one's
favorite beer -- emptied, of course -- on the graves.
As the two elderly sisters walked to their cars, they joked like children.
"She," Mrs. Lewis said of her sister, "is an old maid schoolteacher."
"She," Ms. Dozier said of her sister, "is not right, and has been that way all her life."
Because the burials
here have far outnumbered the changes to the headstones, because it is
impossible to tell where one grave ends and another begins, there is no telling how many people have
been put here and forgotten. Once, stillborn babies and even body parts from surgeries were buried
here, a less than dignified place, some people might believe, for a loved one.
But in this place
where bones and memories mingle, where people work so hard to smooth the
and get flowers to grow straight and sometimes just remember a forgotten name, the dignity is in not
letting the weeds and complacency claim the simple plots.
"It's one thing,"
said Cleveland Cobb, "I look forward to."
Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company