Field Notes on All Saints' Day, 1985 and 1986
By Rosan Augusta Jordan and Frank de Caro
There is a story—maybe true, maybe apocryphal—told to us by a student about some Catholic schoolgirls from Baton Rouge who are attending a retreat at a retreat house near Lacombe in St. Tammany Parish. It happens to be the day after Halloween, so perhaps the spirit of mischievousness is still in the air, and that night the girls decide to escape their confinement in the retreat house and slip out for a little romp in the nearby woods. Suddenly, as they round a bend in the trees, they find themselves staring at an incredible sight. Just ahead of them is a cemetery full of people, the tombs and grave markers bright white and lit up by hundreds of tapering, white candles glowing eerily against the gloomy backdrop of the glowering Spanish moss-hung woods and a dark bayou. Terrified, thoughts of midnight ghosts and goblins, maybe even tales of secret voodoo ceremonies popping into their heads, the girls retreat to their rooms very, very quickly.
But what they inadvertently encountered—-if the story recounts real events at all—was only the custom of marking All Saints' Day, November 1, by going at nightfall to newly cleaned and flower-decorated graveyards and placing lighted candles on the graves to honor the dead. This ritual still has great vitality in Lacombe, and it is practiced in several other Louisiana communities, though it is little known in other parts of the United States (where All Saints' Day is nonetheless a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation and marked in other ways).
Now it is 1985 and we are heading for Lacombe two days before All Saints', rolling down I-12, that little fragment of Interstate that just runs across the Florida Parishes from Baton Rouge to I-10 and I-59. The road has the blandness of most Interstate highways, smooth traveling but little in the landscape lapping the four-lane to really tell us where we are except somewhere in the American countryside. Thus it is hard to think we are moving toward singular and visually dramatic behavior, actions traditional to a local context off the cord of Interstate, though part of a greater cultural complex whose parameters we know in broad outline.
All Saints' Day, we know—including Halloween which precedes it (and takes its name from being the Eve of All Hallows, as All Saints' is more commonly known in England)—is perhaps the oldest continuously celebrated holiday in the Western world. It stems, ultimately, from a holiday in the ancient Celtic calendar called Samhain (pronounced something like Sah-ween), which was one of the "cross-quarter" days of the Celts. These were the days which fell exactly between any seasonal solstice and equinox and mark the transition to a new season. In traditional cultures, liminal time periods, those that lie on the borders between seasons of the year or "seasons" of life, are often thought to be dangerous or in some way powerful times. Samhain was the Celtic New Year, marking the border between the old year and the new. It was also believed to be the time when the souls of everyone who had died that year went to the other world. In this and other cultures this time of year was associated with the presence of spirits in the physical world, an idea which carries over into our Halloween, of course. The ancient Celts lit bonfires on Samhain, possibly to light the spirits' way to the next world or possibly to keep them away from humans. That use of fire would conceivably be the ultimate origin of lighted jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween and for the use of a mass of candles in cemeteries on All Saints' night in Louisiana and in Mexico (where they play an important role in celebrating the Dias de las Muertos, the "Days of the Dead," the important holidays surrounding All Saints').
As Christianity gradually spread throughout Europe, the church evolved the policy of coopting pagan festival days, incorporating these into a Christian context. The pre-Christian holiday of November 1, in part devoted to dead souls, became the Christian All Saints', honoring those who had died and were in heaven, thus nearly fusing together existing practice and Christian belief. This was accomplished by Pope Gregory IV in the ninth century. November 2 later became All Souls' Day, dedicated to those who had died in the faith but were expiating their sins in purgatory.
As a Christian holiday, All Saints' has been celebrated in different ways in different places. In southern Italy, people returning from cemeteries on the day stopped at inns for merrymaking (in a spirit perhaps not unlike that of the New Orleans jazz funeral). In Mexico, the holiday as brought by the Spanish blended with a pre-existing Meso-American festival for the dead, and today the Days of the Dead (which provide some of the backdrop for the John Huston film Under the Volcano, based on Malcolm Lowery's 1947 novel) are celebrated with a gusto that may strike Americans as bizarre. Not only are graves elaborately decorated but food is brought to the cemeteries for the dead and also placed on altars prepared for spirits visiting their former earthly homes. Children and adults alike buy an incredible array of skeleton toys, and people buy or exchange with friends candy skulls with their names on them. In various parts of the country, especially Oaxaca and Michoacan, there are night-time vigils with thousands of candles in the local panteones.
All Saints' has long been an important day in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana, brought from France as La Toussaint (a name for the day which is still used in French-speaking and French-influenced areas of the state). The above-ground cemeteries of the Crescent City, themselves such a distinctive feature of the urban landscape, were virtually mobbed on All Saints' in the 19th century and earlier decades of the twentieth century. The wood engravings of the nineties and the photographs of the thirties show cemetery aisles packed with people, tombs festooned with flowers or beaded immortelles. It was a time for families to get together and for general socializing, a festive day for most. Vendors lined the streets selling tamales, popcorn and pralines, or perhaps la biere creole, a beer brewed out of pineapple pulp and fruit juice, according to Gumbo Ya-Ya.
Today in New Orleans All Saints' is more subdued but still an important day for visiting and decorating cemeteries. A modest but steady stream of people makes its way to family tombs in Lafayette or St. Louis No. 1 or Cypress Grove, and Save Our Cemeteries, an organization devoted to the study and preservation of the Crescent City's historic graveyards, has taken to stationing its members in several of the older cemeteries to pass out information and solicit memberships. Of these older cemeteries, St. Roch's, probably the best kept up, most retains the older air of All Saints' hustle and bustle. Once at the heart of the Ninth Ward's life, it is still visited by many former residents of the neighborhood who have moved to Gretna or St. Bernard Parish or other suburbs. Practically every grave and every niche in the wall "ovens" have flowers. People greet each other, chat with each other, or stop to joke with St. Roch's indefatigable sexton, Albert Hattier, about his own recently completed tomb, which sits prominently guarding the gate to St. Roch's No. 2.
But it is only in a few of Louisiana's rural communities, like Lacombe on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and Lafitte, on Bayou Barataria, where the sublime night-time vigils, once more common, still take place to give All Saints' an especially distinctive aspect. In both of these places, as well as in many others in South Louisiana where All Saints' is observed without the candlelight vigil, the week before is a time of intense preparation. Undergrowth, weeds, and any cemetery trash are cleaned up, and tombs and graves, most of which have copings or slabs or in some other way conform to the South Louisiana style of raised grave structures, are painted (once with whitewash, today more likely with latex).
Two days before All Saints' in Lacombe in 1985, Hillary LeFrere labors to finish a structure on his brother's grave in the LaFontaine Cemetery. This cemetery is practically right on highway 190, a few hundred feet from the Lacombe post office, and could hardly be more picturesque: on a slight rise, fronted by a low but stately wrought iron fence, and roofed by wonderful, giant oaks. One substantial grave structure has been formed of a rectangular cinder block border about two feet high with earth in the middle. One of those tombstones the federal government provides for veterans has been cemented to the foot (Mr. LeFrere had to cut off a huge chunk of this one, because they are made to go deep in the earth, not sit atop south Louisiana style graves), and all that remains is to afix the cross which Mr. LeFrere has made himself by pouring cement into a cruciform mold. Further along in the next row, one grave is simply a mound of earth. It is that of Mr. LeFrere's mother, who died this year; according to tradition here, nothing is done to a grave for a year after burial. In the next row Mr. LeFrere's brother is cleaning an older grave. Soon the only thing left to be done will be the spreading of the sand which traditionally has been put around the graves to heighten the sense of neatness and reflect the light of the candles. This year, however, there is some anxiety about the sand. The parish has always provided it and may not be able to afford to now. No one is sure if or when it will arrive.
The LaFontaine is a family cemetery, one of a number of such family graveyards in the area. In the communal Williams and Osey Ordogne cemeteries there is activity also. Both of these are set back in the woods and reached by a short walk from nearby roads. The Ordogne is off Davis Road (better known locally as Fish Hatchery Road), the Williams not far from Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. About a dozen people are in Williams, a few socializing after completing their work. The sound of a truck out on the road sparks interest. Maybe it's the sand, finally arriving. But whatever it is, the truck does not stop here.
The country around Lacombe, a town of 5,000 about a fifteen minute drive from the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, is woodsy with a mixture of fragrant, tall pines and moss-dripping oaks, and houses cozily ensconced under the trees. The land is different in Lafitte, south of New Orleans in the southern end of Jefferson Parish twenty minutes from the West Bank, more open, with houses and docks and moored commercial fishing vessels almost crowded along the banks of busy Bayou Barataria. The cemeteries here are small and mostly line the banks of the bayou too, several of them narrow wedges between water and road. Years ago the only access to them was by the water route or the narrow footpath that rims the bayou's side.
Now on the day before All Saints' most of the work has been finished here. The graves are mostly gleaming white, and flowers in pots sit on a few. But in the Berthoud Cemetery on Fleming Cemetery Road there is a steady if modest stream of comers and goers, many with flowers, to visit graves for last minute puttering. Rosaline Encalade inspects her husband's grave and then goes to the other side of the cemetery to start painting another, which belongs to people who have been unable to come themselves. While their parents do some last minute inspecting, two children run up over the Indian mound which is the set-piece here, an old, iron fence-enclosed grave on its summit, the other graves ringing its base. The Berthoud Cemetery must be one of the most picturesque spots in the state: a secluded place, the Indian mound, moss-dripping trees, the immaculate graves set in somewhat irregular patterns, and tombs in an array of styles, some of them sloping down toward almost mysterious, swampy ground, all set against the backdrop of the bayou itself. Indeed, according to Frost Fleming, on whose land the cemetery sits, the graveyard has often attracted teenagers from all over who want to hold spooky, nocturnal beer parties there, and he keeps a careful eye out for mischief. But right now the only people here are those who have come to tend it lovingly. The tending and visiting continue on All Saints' Day itself, and then as dusk falls on that day the cemeteries come intensely alive with light and with people.
The Williams Cemetery back in Lacombe is probably the most dramatic. The long, white candles, lit one by one on a multitude of graves, quickly seem to become a great flaming mass. The light colored sand brightens the effect, and the wall of high bamboo that virtually surrounds the place seems to shut out the exterior darkness and turn the space into an intensely glowing little room. The people who keep arriving from the road first pass through a dark field, then catch the flow of light through a narrow entrance in the hedge, then pass into the lighted "room" as into another world.
The cemetery is jammed with people. In Williams their faces are mostly black, for in Lacombe the custom of lighting candles for the dead has been retained most vigorously by blacks and by Creoles of color (many of whom also claim Choctaw ancestry, as Lacombe was once home to a group of that tribe; Father Adrien Rouquette, the Creole poet and missionary to the Choctaws, probably played a role in the development of the All Saints' celebration here, helping to fuse the Catholic holy days with an Indian celebration of the dead). The atmosphere is entirely festive. The annual event brings family and friends together and they visit with each other and socialize, waiting for the local priest to arrive. When he comes, accompanied by several altar boys, he blesses the graves, speaks a brief homily on the meaning of All Saints', and moves on to the next cemetery. There are said to be as many as twenty in Lacombe, most of them small family affairs, where candles are lit. When the priest leaves, back into the darkness, the socializing resumes.
Away to the south in Lafitte the scene is re-enacted, but in a quieter, more subtle way. The cemeteries do not seem as jammed, and the candles, in contrast to the white tapers of Lacombe, are routinely of the votive type, short, squat, held in clear or colored glass. The weather is warm and at the Berthoud Cemetery the mosquitoes swarm in airborne armies; people do not linger long over their candles here. Yet it is still an important community event, and at the other cemeteries here people gather and talk and flinch in unison when a gust of breeze threatens to blow out their flickering candles. At the Coullon Cemetery the members of a New Orleans television crew are poking their floodlights and minicam around, recording the scene for broadcast. They pause at one tomb where a group of kids has gathered and the interviewer asks them, isn't it scary to come to the cemetery at night like this? The kids reply, no, of course not, though they can't quite explain why. And, of course, it isn't. The event is a peaceful and pretty one, the candles cast a warm and attractive, not a somber, glow on the graves, which are a link to the communal past. The people chat with family and neighbors in a quiet, dignified and obviously happy way. This particular All Saints' night they keep on doing so until an unexpected shower blows in, rain and wind snuffing out candles and scattering people to their houses, though with the satisfaction of having performed the ritual for another year.
The Feast of All Saints continues to be commemorated because it is part of a still-strong south Louisiana religious tradition (in Lafitte, the priest visits the graves as in Lacombe, and Mass is celebrated in one of the cemeteries, though in the afternoon, not at night as once was the case), and because it is a way of showing respect for the departed. Some may feel especially close to the spiritual world on All Saints' Night. One lady at the Berthoud Cemetery spoke of the photograph said to have been made of the giant live oak there which, when developed, showed an image of Christ's face in the bark, and she recalled also the time she had been lighting All Saints' candles here and a dark stranger whose face she could not see followed behind her and told her she was doing God's good work; when she turned around to thank him he had disappeared. At one time it may have been believed locally that the souls of the dead returned to the cemeteries on this night. But if this was ever a widespread belief, it is something which people today recall, if at all, as "a legend" from past time, and the dead now "return" only in memory and in honor.
We wonder, will the All Saints' tradition as it is found in Lacombe and Lafitte continue into the future? Probably it will. Tradition itself can be a powerful force for its own continuance. People go on doing things because they are traditional and people respect the conservatism of that. Plus, this is a society where family ties are still very strong and All Saints' reinforces that by stressing the ties to deceased members of the family group and the community. Beyond that, these people obviously enjoy getting together in the cemeteries. Today, they are also aware that they are maintaining an unusual, distinctive tradition, and that gives it an added attraction. They know they have a lovely custom which is pretty to look at and a good thing to keep going for posterity, and which now interests others from beyond the local community.
Editor's Note, 2013: This custom remains strong in both Lafitte and Lacombe.