Home Where You can find me on the webs The Threshold DesignWrite

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Saint's Day in New Orleans' Cities of the Dead

Relics of St.Roch's
Relics of St.Roch's
"To all whose desire is to be rich and to live a short life, but a merry one, I have no hesitation in recommending New Orleans." 
                                                               --Henry B. Fearson, Sketches of America, London, 1819

Decorating the Graves All Saint's Day, New Orleans 

 New Orleans likes to follow up her seasons of festivity (some might argue debauchery)  with a day set apart for  religious observance - a Catholic feast, or celebration.
Mardi Gras is followed by Ash Wednesday, and today, after Halloween's orange and black party, is
All Saint's Day.
Now, understanding New Orleans is impossible, but I'll give you a glimpse into the thinking of her inhabitants...
...when you live so long and so close to the edge of nothing-to-lose, when you know the levee's going to break eventually and you're prepared with a boat and an ice chest of beer, then
Laissez les bons temps roulez isn't just a tourism slogan.
Every day, every occasion, and every passage of life is celebrated.
Even death.

Today, a "Second Line" will come over from St.Louis Cemetery No.1 on Basin Street, the city's oldest burial place (established 1789), to St.Louis No 2.

           Second Line: n., those so moved by the mournful music of the jazz band walking to escort the       body to its final resting place that they follow along, whether they know the deceased or not; v. to "second line," to show respect to the family of the deceased by following the mourners to the resting place, and then celebrate the deceased's life. 

A beautiful example of a recent second line is the 2009 funeral of Juanita Brooks here: 

According to the Times Picayune, there will be staffed tables for the preservation organization, Save Our Cemeteries, as well as the event
"Dearly Departed," an exploration of St.Louis no.1 featuring historical costumed characters buried there, such as voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

St.Louis no.1

But along with those events, families will arrive to tend to the graves of their ancestors, doing what they can to repair, clean, and tend to the final resting places.

New Orleans' Cities of the Dead are full of above ground tombs and vaults, all standing shoulder to shoulder in varying styles of architecture. There are businesses specializing in restoring family vaults back to their original colors and condition, as you can see here on ChauxVive's site.

My father tended to the family vault and my grandmother's grave every other week. Grannie was buried in a fine marble mausoleum, high in the air. Daddy would have to use the pole to extract the copper vase, dump the old flowers and water in the tiny kitchenette by the stained glass window wall. After he replaced the flowers, he'd stand and say a decade of Hail Mary's on his ruby glass rosary beads.
Meanwhile, I would stoop and stare into the clear glass panel that offered a view of an eternal resting place available for sale and wonder why anyone would want to live here in a marble lockbox. Sorry, Grannie.

marble mausoleum
The neighborhoods of the tombs and vaults outside, lined shoulder to shoulder along narrow little streets, guarded by crying angels and miniscule iron picket fences, looked much friendlier to my eight year old thinking. I could imagine spirits at night walking out of their doors and down their steps to find a playmate or visit with others, the way I did every summer morning.
Two scenes at Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District.

All of New Orleans' cemeteries fascinate with their pyramids,
 oven vaults,

 and society tombs.

But the one that inspired my Red River House story, with its voodoo and relics and pennies, is the one in the Ninth Ward where my family lived originally, over a hundred years ago: St. Roch's Cemetery.



When the yellow fever epidemic raged therough New Orleans in the early 1800's, Father Thevus prayed to St.Roch for deliverance of his parishioners. When his parish was untouched, he built the tiny chapel in the cemetery you see here.

St.Roch, patron saint of dogs

"Entering the Room of Cures" - Dawn Carl
People prayed to St.Roch for cures of all kinds - ailments of hands, feet, teeth - everything! The relics seen here along the walls are representations of the body parts they prayed for, left as offerings of thanks. They  also left offerings of their braces and crutches - testament to being cured ...

"Room appears untouched since 1875."

"Notice the dentures?"

... - and they offered bricks inscribed with 'Thanks' and left offerings of money. There really are rumors of voodoo rituals performed here, and given the close intertwining of some of the rituals of the two religions, I believe them.

-- With special thanks to Dawn Carl of All Things Genealogical for the use of her pictures. 

A bientot!


  1. Wow! These are some amazing photos and the information about all the tombs and stories. Really, Pam, you need to write this book. I can see a ton of potential here.

    Dawn did an amazing job with those photos.

    Again, WOW!

  2. Hi Tami! If you ever write historical or paranormal, Dawn is a good resource for NOLA related information. She researches building history & all sorts of things.... I'm so happy to have found her on Google + !

  3. Love this like I love the city itself! I went down for The World Science Fiction Convention there in the late '80s (yes, I'm old) and had a wonderful time. Definitely want to go back with Dear Hubby.

    A local friend who had 15 minutes to evacuate for Katrina told me the story of St. Expedite and I used that in my class at a government office.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Fascinating. I need to make it down there someday.

  5. Hi Julee, You'll have to share that story! Is it the one about poundcake?
    And I hope your friend is doing ok now.

    Hi Michele! It's quite a place if you love history, food,music, and people watching. You need to come on down! The rest of the state is equally beautiful.

  6. I'm with Tami - you need to do something great with all this wonderful information. This is a fascinating blog and I'm going to link to it from my FB page. :-)

    And did you get my response thru FB to your email? FB keeps telling me the message wasn't sent but it's showing up in the chain. Argh!


Thank you for following!