My visit 15 years ago started at New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis I. Its tall wrought iron and stone monuments are packed tightly on a grid of narrow graveled paths, and extend block after block. Right away, you can see how it suits the urban traditions of the tradespeople and city elders buried there. On my tour, we found the marble tomb of Homer Plessy, the shoemaker who became famous in 1896 during the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was a civic-minded Creole tradesman who belonged to two community associations. Those groups supported him in his historic legal fight against segregation.
These associations were another New Orleans tradition. They arranged picnics and dances, but their most important role was a sort of funeral insurance, to provide a suitable wake and funeral for members. At least one brass band and uniformed mourners would accompany the family on the "last mile" with the body. After standing by Plessy during his lifetime, they walked beside him on his last ride in 1925 on the way to St Louis I.
Things looked a lot different across town in Holt cemetery near the city park. Begun as a potters field, Holt is the final home of the city's poorest residents. You entered from a community college parking lot, into what at that time looked like an overgrown field. A hand-painted sign says "Holt cemetery".
Holt wasn't in any guidebook, but I knew that it was where Charles "Buddy" Bolden, the first "king" of jazz, was buried thanks in part to a note at the end of Michael Ondaatje’s fine novel, Coming Through Slaughter. Bolden was famous for his cornet playing and his charm with the women. A five-year-old Louis Armstrong heard King Bolden play and remembered the sound for the rest of his life. (Recently Treme honored him with an episode title, “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.”) But Bolden’s career was cut short in 1906 by mental illness, and when he died in an institution many years later, all but forgotten, he was buried in Holt without ceremony or marker.
On my visit years ago, I found no sign of his grave. Instead I found a landscape of remembrance very different from St. Louis I, or any other I recognized. Graves in Holt are marked by plastic knickknacks and chinaware, like someone's picnic spot. These personalized markers spring from a rural African-American tradition and are as rich in their way as the marble in St Louis I. At many graves, loved ones have placed cups, saucers, bottles, rugs, bits of plaster. In that tradition, these items create a place where spirits of the departed can take rest and solace for their voyage.
But like their fellow citizens in St. Louis I, the departed in Holt need a funeral to send them on their way, and many poor families valued burial insurance more highly than health or accident insurance. Again, community associations provided it. Their brass bands nurtured Buddy Bolden's (and Armstrong’s) musical growth and shaped his repertoire. But when he died, there was no band to give him a proper goodbye.
On Bolden’s 119th birthday, New Orleans made amends and gave Buddy Bolden a proper send-off. Delgado Community College organized the tribute, Stewart Enterprises donated a stone marker, and the Olympia Brass Band led a second-line parade of hundreds of New Orleanians and several television crews. A generation who never knew Bolden turned out to honor his memory because it said something about who they are and where they come from.
Now, his great-granddaughter said afterward, “he may be at peace.”
After years away, I stopped by Holt last weekend and visited Bolden’s fine marker, which seemed to honor also the other homemade markers surrounding it – the orange plastic flower, the child’s toys.
The stone called Bolden “legendary cornet player/ New Orleans jazz pioneer/ And first 'King of Jazz' and included Jelly Roll Morton's description of him: “The blowingest man since Gabriel.”
This Halloween let’s keep our ears peeled for those spirits.
This is adapted from an article that first appeared in International Cemetery & Funeral Management magazine. That’s right.