Sunday, November 1, 2015

All Dem Saints

Click any photo to "embiggen"
Today, November 1, is All Saint's Day.  I read somewhere - and I can't find it now - that the traditional celebrations of All Saints Day and All Soul's Day, which takes place on November 2, first occurred on the North American continent in New Orleans, one of the New World's oldest cities.

In L.A. and Mexico they use marigolds. In New Orleans, chrysanthemums
Like people in Mexico and Central America, on All Saint's Day, New Orleanians traditionally clean and tend their ancestors' graves, whitewashing the tombs and adorning them with flowers. After Mass at the church, the priests come to the cemetery to bless the graves and wish the inhabitants peace.

St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 is New Orleans' oldest existing cemetery. It was begun in 1798, after the city suffered a fire that caused the closure of the first cemetery, St. Peter's - which, to be fair, was inadequate, subject to flooding which caused coffins to float out of their graves.

St. Louis Cemetery employed the French and Spanish tradition of above-ground tombs, which worked out well in a city whose water table was quite near the surface. Corpses were interned in brick structures that resembled bakers' ovens - indeed, in this climate the internal temperature in the sepulchers literally "baked" their contents, so that, after a year and a half, the tomb was opened and the decayed remains compacted or shoveled into internal wells like so many chimney ashes, to make room for the next occupant.

A typical family tomb
St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 is just lakeside of the French Quarter, on Basin Street, and back when I first started coming to New Orleans in the 1990s, tourists were warned of the danger of exploring it alone, as it was close to a crime-ridden housing project. They were encouraged to join official tours, for safety.

Nowadays, the area is not considered dangerous, but vandalism and artifact theft has caused the Archdiocese to close it to casual visitors, and allow only tour groups to visit. Except on All Saint's Day. Any Louisiana resident is allowed into St. Louis Cemetery Number 1 on November 1.

A steady sprinkle was coming down when we arrived at the Basin Street gate. A couple of guards in yellow slickers and windbreakers huddled under a pop-up tent just inside. When asked about the Blessing ceremony, the one in charge wasn't too sure it was happening, given the weather. But he let us in to stroll the narrow pathways with our umbrellas.

Right by the gate, there were decorated tombs, but further in, most seemed neglected and sad. Some tombs were in ruins, just tumbles of old bricks. Many of the tombs were overgrown with weeds and ferns rooted in the stones. It was hard to read many of the inscriptions, so worn and faded were they, sometimes the marble stones were broken. But even so, among them were modern granite slabs, memorializing those members of old families who recently passed away.

Here are some images:

The tomb of the Marigny family, with roses
A tomb monument
A tribute left by a family member
Tomb carving
A ruined tomb
As I walked along the narrow lanes, I encountered only a few individuals. One man greeted me, and then said, "I gotta go say hi to Grandpa," and ducked between the tombs. Curious, I tried to discreetly peer round the corner, but he had disappeared in the labyrinth.

Another mourner
I continued to wander, stepping through the puddles. Sometimes the water was so deep I had to step up on the marble sills of some of the tombs, to keep from flooding my boots. The strains of the steamboat Natchez calliope came faintly on the air. It was playing "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

Is this the tomb of Marie Laveau?
Legend claims that the Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau is buried in this tomb in St. Louis Cemetery Number 1. The red X marks are supposedly made by true believers, and offerings of cigarettes, booze, and Mardi Gras beads are left in tribute.

But I don't know. It wasn't marked. And there are other stories about the tomb, including an odd mystery that in 2013, devotees were surprised to discover that the tomb had been painted cotton-candy pastel pink with latex paint - unauthorized either by the Archdiocese or by the family that owns the tomb.

According to the stories, the latex paint was washed off. I'm not sure if this is the same tomb, or if I photographed a tomb belonging to some other powerful figure whose devotees left ciggies, change, and an empty whiskey bottle.

I mean, who else would want those things for tributes?

As I wandered, I came round the corner and there under the pop-up tent was a tall, thin priest in a white muslin robe. He had a big, maroon golf umbrella folded up, leaned up against the nearest tomb. He chatted with one of the mourners, and then looked around. "Should we get started? I have to be at St. Patrick's Cemetery at three."

Then he read from St. Paul. As he read, a couple of other mourners wandered in and joined in the liturgy. They closed with the Lord's Prayer.

Rose petals at the Marigny tomb
As the priest was finishing up, shaking hands with the meager group of celebrants, a cluster of young people appeared at the Basin Street gate, one with a shiny top hat and costume. I'm not sure whether the two guards turned them away because they were not, as diocese policy requires, Louisiana residents, or whether the public opening hours were concluded at the end of the Blessing of the Graves ritual.

Or maybe they just thought the guys were going to be assholes.

As we left, the guards were laughing and talking about a baseball movie where one of the characters tries voodoo to improve his hitting game. I guess they get a lot of voodoo tourists around here.

When we went around the corner to our car, there was another group of young hipsters, heading to the main gate. One young woman wore a hoodie sporting Mickey Mouse ears and a polka-dotted hair bow. I wondered if it would be fun to stick around to see if they were allowed in, but then I shrugged. Did it matter?

We headed into the French Quarter, got some lunch, and watched on TV as Dem Saints came back from the dead to beat the Giants, 52 to 49.


Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I took the kids to NOLA and avoided the cemeteries because of those warnings back in 2002. We did a quick stop at a nicer, newer one but it didn't have the personality of the cemeteries where you take us.
Happy All Saints' Day!

Glennis said...

I am very lucky that my neighborhood cemetery (the idea that I have a "neighborhood cemetery" is hilarious, BTW), St. Roch, is open all the time, and - of course - not a dangerous place. But I appreciate that the diocese is concerned with protecting the more famous New Orleans cemeteries from vandalism - which probably wreaks more havoc than the urban mythology of project kids mugging tourists.