In the early morn after All Hallows Eve, many of you may find yourself stumbling out of a Halloween party, still recovering from the previous night's festivities. As you wipe off your makeup and peel away your costumes, you may bump into an old timer or two carrying relics to the cemetery. Maybe you'll even run into an entire family donning their Sunday best; little ones with arms full of immortelles in tow.
That is, if you're lucky enough. Catching a glimpse of this New Orleans tradition is becoming more and more difficult as old ways and generations of the city give way to a new influx of residents unattached to the ways of times past.
All Saint's Day in New Orleans has had an ever-changing identity from traditional French Creole inspired holy day, to city holiday, to just another day. Originally celebrated in mid-May during the time of Pope Bonafice IV in 609 AD, the first of November tradition observed by historic and modern day Catholics alike is linked to Pope Gregory III and brought over by our Francophile ancestors as they settled our city in the early 1700's. Traditionally, this day was always set aside to honor the dead, but the first organized occurrence of All Saint's Day in New Orleans took place in 1742 in conjunction with the re-dedication of St. Peter's Cemetery and the completion of the fence around it.
"The hottest months of the year were over with by that time," John Magill of the Historic New Orleans Collection explains. "You could say hurricane season was about over and cemeteries became a bit overgrown; so it gave families time to go out and make a day of cleaning up the tombs, place flowers, immortelles, and other beaded decorations. Families would frequently have a picnic, meet friends, it was very big day; even a city holiday until recent decades."
Sarah MacDonald, Communications Coordinator of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, explains that while All Saint's Day may have been a holiday in the past, for practicing Catholics, it has always been a holy day and it's crucial to maintain the difference.
"All Saint's Day, which is the solemnity of all saints in the Catholic Church, is a holy day of obligation. So practicing Catholics are required to attend mass," she explains. "It's important to remember that Catholics celebrate All Saint's Day and all Soul's Day in the sentimental belief that there is a prayerful spiritual communion between those at a state of grace who have died, and those that are living. So we ask for those that are in heaven to pray for us, to intercede for us, and we also pray for those who have died and may be in purgatory."
Before the 1800's, life in New Orleans was rather oppressive. Locals were constantly assaulted with our signature heat, humidity, and moisture which often spread pestilence with the help of vermin and mosquitos. Because of this, people did their best to avoid the dead and cemeteries were placed out of the way in the "back of town." With a better understanding of death and disease, spurred by a great influx of immigrants to the city, craftsmen and laborers built the monument laden and park-like cemeteries New Orleans has become famous for.
Following the construction of old world reminiscent cemeteries like St. Louis #1 and #2, All Saint's Day observances became more prevalent around the city. Although still a deeply rooted Catholic holiday, many other groups began to take advantage of the day, as keeping the ornate structures of the burial sites and tombs were mainly the obligation of the surviving family members.
"People would go to the French Market and buy flowers and other sorts of religious devices to take out to the tombs and it was quite a sales day for those types of things," Magill explains.
Lora Williams, Programs Coordinator and Tour Guide for Save Our Cemeteries, an organization dedicated to preserving our city's historic cemeteries and educating tourists and locals alike, maintains that even though All Saint's Day isn't as ubiquitous to the city as it once was, it's still one of the busiest days our cemeteries see.
"It's by far one of the biggest days of the year. But it's mainly for families; we don't have many organized events on that day. Some people tend to think there's like, 'day of the dead', celebrations taking place but this isn't so."
It is a truism there is little spookiness surrounding All Saint's Day, and many people drawn to the party atmosphere of New Orleans may be somewhat disappointed by its prayerful nature. "There are masses and blessings in the cemeteries at different times during the day. But there are no parades. Years ago, when she was alive, Antoinette K-Doe used to serve food and visit her husband's grave. It became almost like a party but since she died it hasn't happened."
With a steady influx of newer residents supplanting the resident Catholic and Creole population, All Saint's Day lost a lot of its widespread appeal."While it's certainly something the church recognizes and resonates in the memories of many locals, it's not something that has the outpouring of support it did a century or a century and a half ago," Magill explains. "Also, cemeteries are kept in much better conditions now. While this isn't always true, there are more dedicated grounds men and caretakers who keep up the cemeteries and take much of the load off of the families."
Anyone looking to catch a glimpse of what could be a dying New Orleans tradition is encouraged to contact Save Our Cemeteries for tours and visitation information. The Archdiocese of New Orleans also encourages Catholics and non-Catholics alike to attend mass if they are interested. Contact them for a listing of scheduled events such as tomb blessings and services held on-site at various cemetery locations. Anyone looking to observe the day's activities is encouraged to be reminded of the prayerful nature of the holiday and respectful to families as they tend to final resting places of their deceased loved ones.