A Southern Feast of All Souls

The army of the Dead slept in this marble camp.

The Times-Picayune, 2 November 1882

‘Tis now the Halloween season. As the days shorten and the leaves begin to change, we begin counting down the days until the thinning of the veil between the physical and spiritual planes. Within the Christian Church this time is marked with reflection and celebration for all souls who have passed from the physical realm. The Church officially has named November first as the Feast of All Saints or All Hallows, a time to celebrate those saints of the church. The following day is the Feast of All Souls when all the dead are celebrated. As the celebration of the Feast of All Hallows begins on the previous evening, that day has been named All Hallows Eve, which has become Halloween. To celebrate this season, I’m celebrating some of the Southern souls who remain here among us throughout the days leading up to the Feast of All Souls.

“All Saints’ Day in New Orleans–Decorating the Tombs” by John Durkin. Published in Harper’s Weekly, November 1885.

For centuries these days were celebrated with family gathering in cemeteries and decorating the graves of their loved ones who had passed on. This was especially practiced in Catholic areas of the region. Unfortunately, many of these practices have fallen out of favor since the Victorian era leaving many cemeteries, and graves therein, neglected.

An article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune November 2, 1882, describes the scene in the cemeteries of that city.


 Celebrating the Festival of the Dead.

Tombs of Great Men in Louisiana History—Scenes and Episodes.

The scenes usual on that great Sacred Festival, All Saints’ Day, were enacted yesterday in the cemeteries of the city. While the crowd of visitors was probably as numerous as ever, it was remarked that the floral offering were not so profuse as on some former occasions. A detailed description of the decoration of the tombs would certainly prove monotonous to the general reader, since it would be but a repetition of what has been written year after year from the earliest time at which the custom was adopted. These tributes to the dead, taking the form of harps, lyres, crosses, anchors, crowns, garlands, wreaths—symbols of profoundly tender religious sentiments—were to be seen everywhere upon the resting-place of the rich man and the poor.

The air was redolent of sweet perfumes, and rich huses of vivid blooms were displayed on the white beauty of polished marble, the gray rough granite, or contrasted with the dark green of luxuriant grass and clustering vines. The exquisite taste of women, combined with the art of the florist, to produced the lovliest designs expressive of affectionate remembrance.

Notwithstanding the hot and sultry weather, immense numbers of people visited the cemeteries during the day. Between ten and fifteen thousand persons went to the Canal street cemeteries, the cars being well filled at an early hour, and densely packed in the evening with passengers. But had the entire population of the city thronged the graveyards the dead would have been more numerous than the living. During the period from 1817 to 1878, sixty-two years, 342, 000 persons died in the this city, and reckoning from the date of the foundation of New Orleans, 160 years ago, it may be asserted that more than 400,000 human bodies have been laid within the precincts of her cemeteries. This is an impressive statement of a tremendous fact, which must arouse in thinking minds somber reflections concerning the brevity of human existence.

In the afternoon the Canal street cemeteries presented a singular spectacle. Long lines of vehicles—carriages, buggies, carts laden with flowers—almost blockaded the roadway. Along the banquettes were ranged all manner of refreshment booths, the proprietors of which made great clamor in their efforts to attract patrons.

At the entrance to the cemeteries the orphans from various asylums appealed to the benevolence of the charitable. Within the cemeteries themselves, there was the continual movement of the crowd of promenaders passing to and fro; a hum of voices, and sometimes the unseemly laughter of the frivolous or thoughtless.

Approaching the ancient St. Louis Cemetery, one beheld on high the draped folds of flags—French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese—over the tombs of the societies of those nationalities. The white sepulchers at a distance seemed like so many tents and over them were the banners. The army of the Dead slept in this marble camp.

Have a spooky, safe and joyous Halloween season!

Welcome to the Southern Feast of All Souls!