In the New Orleans area, All Saints Day – November 1, the day after All Hallow’s Eve – has traditionally been a day devoted to cemetery clean-up. In the past, families gathered to whitewash the aboveground brick and concrete tombs that deteriorate in our subtropical climate (tombs necessitated by a high water table, the Louisiana encyclopedia Knowla.org adds, but that’s a subject I ranted about last week). Women wove immortelles of crepe or waxed paper to decorate the monuments, and the day was as much about social interaction as reverence for the dead.
On Tuesday, you’ll still find family members weeding and washing tombs in New Orleans. But only in the Bayou Lacombe area can you find the centuries-old All Saints Day practice of blessing the graves and holding a candlelight vigil for the departed. There, La Toussaint – French for All Saints Day – culminates in the Lighting of the Graves, when, at dusk, hundreds of candles are placed on the tombs, illuminating stones and moss-draped trees and participants in a flickering mass of hushed wonder. Years ago, as a young reporter, I covered the ritual; it was one of the most moving and memorable stories I’ve done in my almost 40 years as a journalist.
La Toussaint draws from the Creole, Choctaw and French cultures of the Bayou Lacombe area. It dates to the beginnings of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and one of its early founders, Pere Adrien Rouquette. A native of New Orleans and the first Creole to be ordained as a priest after Louisiana became a part of the United States, Pere Rouquette moved to the Lacombe area in 1859 and spent 27 years as a missionary to the local Choctaw Indians. He incorporated Choctaw practices into his Catholic teachings, and their way of honoring the dead is reflected in the way All Saints Day is celebrated by Lacombe’s Catholics today.
This year’s La Toussaint has already begun, as families in Lacombe this week weed and mow and trim the grass in the cemeteries. The Blessing of the Cemeteries will begin at 1 p.m. on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, at Casborn Cemetery, and continue through the afternoon from burial place to burial place – nine in all – whose names are as evocative as those of the families interred there: Osey Ordogne, Toomer, Ducre, Melon-Cousin. The final stop is Lafontaine Hilltop cemetery, where the candles are lighted at sunset and burn late into the evening.
On Sunday, Oct. 30, you can learn more about this fascinating tradition at a program sponsored by the Bayou Lacombe Museum. Genealogist, historian and poet Karen Ducre-Raymond will present a visual and oral history of the Bayou Lacombe celebration of La Toussaint. The program starts at 2 p.m. at the VFW Hall, 28000 Main Street, Lacombe.
New Orleans documentary and portrait photographer Owen Murphy has extensively documented Creole culture. He took the wonderful image above of candlelit graves at Osey Ordogne Cemetery in Lacombe in 1998. Check out more of his work at owenmurphyphotography.com.