Archive | November, 2010

Lacombe, Louisiana – All Saint’s Day – La Toussaint

10 Nov

Cleaned and Painted Graves, Flowers, and Candles are All Part of the All Saint's Day Observance in Cemeteries in Lacombe, Louisiana

Louisiana is a place of contradictions – or at least it may appear that way to the outsider.  Many of us that live here even have a hard time figuring it all out but as time goes on we learn.  The great river, The Mississippi River, has sculpted and shaped our landscape but is also responsible for shaping our culture and even our lives.  The river brought many cultures together along its banks.  These diverse cultures found a way to live together and to create a unique common culture.  This blended culture at times appears to be contradictory in many respects but in fact it is the glue that keeps us together.

In Louisiana we have a hedonistic celebration called Mardi Gras but then we also have observances that I would classify as very spiritual. New Orleans, and south Louisiana, have become the cradle of Mardi Gras but this location is also famous for its All Saint’s Day observance.  Louisiana is a very spiritual place and these roots run deep among most of the cultures that call this place home.  So, many people and cultures that have come to this place have seen their customs and traditions blended over time.  Many of those cultural traditions are expressed through religious venues.

A religious tradition associated with south Louisiana is the observance of All Saint’s Day.  November 1st finds many cemeteries clean and sparkling and filled with beautiful flowers and with people.  Some communities even have night-time observances, with the lighting of candles, in their cemeteries.

Priests Prepare to Bless the Graves

In the community of Lacombe, Louisiana, the newly cleaned and painted and whitewashed tombs welcome visitors on the first of November.  Most of the graves have also been decorated with lovely flowers and other expressions of love.  However, as dusk approaches more solemnity comes over the people and it is not long before the priests are there with robes and water and are walking through the cemetery blessing the graves.  After the procession of the priests through the rows of pretty graves it is time for the candles. White candles are placed around most of the graves and are lit.  As evening and night become established the cemeteries take on a beautiful glow from the many candles.  Children, usually relatives of the deceased, hurry to light the candles at some plots.  At others it is more of a ritual.

Although many of those that come to the cemeteries on November 1 are observers, the occasion is for the living family members that have relatives buried there.  They perform their rituals, or observances, and it matters not if people are there to watch.  What is done is between the relatives, the living and the dead, others are welcome to watch but those participating pay them little mind until the proper time.

At LaFontaine Cemetery, in Lacombe, the relatives of the dead tell the stories of their family members that have died.  They relate the hardships and joys that their families have experienced through the generations.  They young children listen intently.  The children also have participated in preparing for this day and they look eager to help when the candle lighting starts.  In a few years some of them will be standing where their parents and grandparents are now standing and telling the same stories about their families.  They will become the guardians of a great tradition and of family knowledge.  It is a wonderful thing to see those that are living honor the lives of those that have died.

Woman Relates Family History, and Some Personal Notes, About Her Relatives in LaFiontaine Cemetery in Lacombe, Louisiana

I guess in some respects many people think that this night is an observance of the dead.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The night is to honor and to remember the lives of family members that have departed – what a great way to honor the memory or relatives and to pass on that memory and respect to future generations.   Those in attendance, just to observe, learn of the things that are important to the families from this region.  Things like what brought their relatives to this place, and the hardships and triumphs that the family has faced.  After listening to many stories and looking at the decorated graves it seems somewhat odd to me that World War 2 has now become a part of the past.  It was so real to my generation.  Many of the graves have pictures of the deceased placed on them and the pictures are of soldiers that are wearing the uniforms of the  United States Military.

Many of the men and women in the cemeteries served in the United States armed forces and all seem to have been honored to serve and many are still honored for their service on this occasion.   If one listens carefully they will understand that most that came to this place had different backgrounds and cultures.  However, they blended into one culture over time but at the same time retained elements of their own family’s cultural heritage.

The cultural heritage of south Louisiana is unique in many respects.  The Mississippi River attracted people from all over the world yet the people lived among each other.  In New Orleans there weren’t strictly Italian neighborhoods, or German neighborhoods, or French neighborhoods among the immigrants.  They lived among each other. There was a gradual blending of the cultures but at the same time families of different cultures maintained some of their own cultural expressions.  There was cultural give and take.  That explanation is a little simplistic and leaves out the problems and hardships that took place among different groups but in the end it resulted in a common blended  culture, sort of like a gumbo, with all the ingredients mixed but at the same time separate.  In a good seafood gumbo the oysters and shrimp and the crabs all retain their distinct identify but they are in that gumbo together.

Both Flat and Tapered Candles Adorn This Grave

The observance of All Saints has changed down through the years.  I have read and heard stories of how great and important the observance was in New Orleans and yet I am not sure what goes on during All Saints in the city these days.  The lighting of candles, in New Orleans, has been forbidden because of the threat of fire.  At one time it was a great religious and social tradition.  So many people were going to the cemeteries that vendors offered special foods and treats and had carts outside many of the cemeteries. Women gathered and prayed and talked and of course there was plenty of peer pressure to keep the family cemetery plot clean and decorated.

A Cleaned and Decorated Plot is Ready for a Night of Candle Light

In the region around New Orleans, and in French influenced areas, All Saints is also called Le Toussaint.  Le Toussaint and/or All Saints has been observed in Louisiana for over 200 years.  It is still with us.  Much of the drama and the tremendous throngs of people in the cemetery has slipped into the past.  In New Orleans it was not uncommon to have thousands of people in one cemetery.  In Lacombe the crowds in some of the cemeteries may approach 100. In the areas outside of Lacombe there are tens or maybe dozens of people. Small scale stuff compared to the past. I have to remind myself that this is an important family observance for the local people and not for me – the outsider. This observance would take place regardless if outsiders attended or not.

Although All Saint’s Day is not the social occasion that it once was in south Louisiana it is still an important ritual and observance.  In my opinion the candle lighting will go on for more generations in Lacombe and other areas around the state.  Mums will continue to decorate many graves on November 1st.  As mentioned earlier many things in Louisiana are spiritual in nature and that spirit is alive and well for the time being in Lacombe, Louisiana.

Advertisements