Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Memento Mori: All Saints Day

I have lived most of my life in the New Orleans area. One of our local customs is the celebration of All Saints Day, November 1, on which the living remember the dead.

It's a tradition arising from the Catholic faith. For Catholics, All Saints Day is a holy day of obligation: Catholics are required to attend Mass on the day. In addition, traditionally they refurbished their family tombs -- pulling weeds, whitewashing or cleaning the headstone or tomb, decorating the grave with flowers, praying for the departed. When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s, schools, government offices, and local businesses were closed to allow families to pursue this devout tradition.

Over the last few decades, however, lifestyles and funeral customs have changed. Many people no longer observe All Saints Day. Schools, even Catholic schools, no longer take a holiday for it. Most government offices remain open (although most state courts still close). Businesses ignore the day. Cremation has become more common, so fewer people are interred after death. If cremated, their ashes may be scattered, or their family may keep the urn with the ashes at home. Others purchase a niche in a mausoleum in which to keep the "cremains." Even those who still have family tombs or cemetery plots no longer take care of them. Instead, they purchase perpetual care contracts and let the cemetery maintain the graves.

For New Orleans cemeteries, however, it is still the biggest day of their year. Crowds of people flow through the gates. For many this is likely their only visit to the family plot except for specific funerals.

I like All Saints Day. I like the idea of remembrance. I like to visit my family's plot in Metairie Cemetery and think about those who are buried there. Their names carved on the headstone are a visible link with them, a reminder of their lives. I like the peace of the cemetery and I like to wander around it, looking at the many fantastic or extravagant tombs, and meditating on those who had them built.

What I treasure about All Saints Day is our culture, which does not ignore death, but recognizes it as inevitable -- not to be escaped, but to be accommodated. In some other parts of the country, people are appalled by open-casket wakes, which are common here; or they are disgusted by funerals, preferring to ignore death and brush by it with little ceremony. To me, they are deep in denial. Our way is healthier. We remind ourselves that no one escapes death. By ritual and ceremony, we comfort ourselves on the loss of those we love. We contemplate and prepare for our own eventual entries into that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."

Memento mori...

2 comments:

Nick Genovese said...

Elora,

Such nice blogs. Do you find blogging to be a good way to practice your writing? It even gets read by others. Also, I love your anecdotes. They make me recall many of the same things from my youth.

Here's a bit of information for you that you may not have known. I worked for the State Of Louisiana since May 16, 1965. John McKeithen was governor at the time. Later, Edwin Edwards became governor and one of the first things he did was to cancel the holidays of Huey P. Long's Birthday and All Saints Day.

The scuttlebutt in the halls of Louisiana buildings at the time was that when Edwin Edwards was a Congressman in Washington D C, he and Senator Russell Long didn't get along so Edwards cancelled Huey's birthday holiday when he became Governor.

Another bit of gossip from the time was that Elaine Edwards (the Governor's wife) was a catholic which proved that Edwards had a high regard for catholicism and he could get away with cancelling All Saints Day as a holiday and not have to take the criticism that would have been forthcoming as a result of his cancelling the holiday.

Fact? Or Fiction? Who knows. I believe that every bit of gossip has at least a grain of truth to it.
Nick

Sphinx Ink said...

Thanks, Nick, for reading my blog and commenting. I'm a newbie at blogging, so I don't know how I'll feel about it in a month or two. Right now it's exciting because it's a way to share my thoughts with others--the essence, I believe, of our drive to write. Thanks for the anecdote from the Edwards era. What a colorful character he was--still is, even from his prison cell. As for both Huey Long's Birthday and All Saints Day, I believe they both are still listed in the state statutes as optional holidays for state employees--that is, holidays that the head of a state agency can choose to grant to the employees of that agency. Where I work, we still get All Saints' Day off--which I expect is a bigger deal here in heavily-Catholic South Louisiana than in mostly-Protestant North Louisiana.