Sunday was All Saints’ Day, so we headed for the cemeteries. In New Orleans, All Saints has always been an important day. Called “La Toussaint” by the French Creole inhabitants, they would all meet in the cemetery to clean the tombs, decorate them with candles, flowers, and other ornaments, and sometimes even picnic and socialize with relatives. People still observe this old tradition, but the cemeteries don’t see the crowds that were present in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Unfortunately, the forecast called for a 100% chance of rain. We visited St. Louis Cemetery #2, in part for my research work, in part because it is my favorite cemetery. We had intended to go to St. Louis Cemetery #1, the oldest in the city, the final resting place of some of my husband’s relatives. The rain started coming down in sheets, and the wind picked up. We realized that we would have to postpone the other cemeteries.
We went to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. They had a choir, instruments, and an amazing organ, which made the Mass even more ethereal. I thought about all the people we had just seen in the cemetery (and by “people,” I mean dead people in tombs; my connection to the past is strong) and the fact that many of them had spent their lives sitting in this very church, participating in Mass just as I was.
I was struck by the image of the Sacred Heart, so visible from where we sat, even with lots of tall people in front of me. It seemed an appropriate image to focus upon on a day when we honor saints, who strove to have hearts like Jesus.
We visited the tomb of the Sisters of the Holy Family. Henriette Delille (1813-1862) was cofoundress of this first order of nuns of color in New Orleans. Over 250 names of nuns interred in this tomb are on record.
Henriette was the product of placage, a system in which a white man, usually Creole or French, would enter into a relationship with a free woman of color, often keeping her in a home on Burgundy St. or the edge of the French Quarter, providing for her and the children that would follow. Even if they had wanted to, the couple could never have entered into a legal marriage. Henriette rejected the expectations that were held for her. There weren’t many options for a free woman of color in New Orleans. (Certainly there were many who owned their own businesses, etc., but many did so with the support of white men. Placage was a reality and a way of life for many.) She clung to her faith and worked her whole life to establish an order of nuns for women of color. She dedicated her life to sacrifice, service, and hard work, helped educate children in the community and cared for the elderly. She was named Venerable by Pope Benedict in 2010.
I see dead people. I kid, but honestly—the past isn’t past in my mind. I suppose by thinking about, talking about, and researching those who are long dead I seek to honor them and their memories. As long as they are in my mind and their names are on my lips, a part of them lives on.
Despite my love for historic cemeteries and the countless hours over several decades that I have spent in cemeteries, I can’t visit the graves of my grandfather and great-grandfather, the two closest people to me who have died. It hurts too much. And I don’t feel them present with me when I’m at their graves. I feel their presence in other situations.
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