All Saints – All Souls

Old Grave in St. Eloi Cemetery, Theriot, LA
Old Grave in St. Eloi Cemetery, Theriot, LA

La Toussaint, along with Le Jour des Morte, or All Souls Day, are not traditions with which I was familiar when I moved to bayou country back in 1978.  Even now, because I’m not Catholic, I had to ask my Catholic friends questions about their origin and meaning.

If one does extensive internet research about All Saints Day or All Souls Day, one will eventually find a distinct connection to All Hallow’s Eve, or what America has nick-named Halloween.  And if you delve too deeply into that history to discover what ghosts and goblins have to do with saints, then be forewarned: it’s history you might not want to know, especially if you are Catholic.

To get personal for a moment, Halloween has been a holiday that I’ve never much cared for.  Not having been desensitized to scary things, I am to this day easily disturbed by frightening images.  My children weren’t allowed to go trick or treating, and I didn’t allow them to watch horror movies while growing up.

Today’s obsession with all things vampire and zombie is quite disconcerting to me.  Our young people have a weird and strange attraction to the macabre, making me wonder what history will say about this generation?  What weird traditions are they ushering in?

But let’s get back to the present.  The Catholic observation of  November 1, or All Saints Day, is also called the Holy Day of Obligation–the day parishioners must attend mass and pray for all the saints.   November 2 is then All Souls Day–on which members are encouraged to pray for all the dead, not just the saints.

Historically, the evening before these two Holy days became known as All Hallows Eve, and through the years, across an ocean to America, this night eventually came to be known as Halloween.

In preparation for a blessing from the priest on all Saints Day, many families visit the cemetery where they whitewash the family tombs.

Fresh Mums at tomb in St. Eloi Cemetery
Fresh Mums at tomb in St. Eloi Cemetery

In past years, families would place a pot of colorful fall mums at the grave, if they could afford them.  If they couldn’t, they might have put cut flowers from the yard in an old vase, coffee can, or Mason jar.

Silk and plastic flowers on tombs in St. Eloi
Silk and plastic flowers on whitewashed tombs in St. Eloi

Nowadays, most of the fresh flowers have been replaced by longer-lasting silk or plastic flower arrangements.  Notice how bright and white the tombs are.

Old brick tomb

My walk through St. Eloi Cemetery on the morning of October 31st was a peaceful one.  I’ve not spent any time there before, and I observed some very old tombs, some so old that the names weren’t legible, and they had sunken so far into the ground that they sat tilted at odd angles to one another.

This has nothing to do with holy days, but I happened to notice a long row of shorter tombs and realized this row must have been reserved for infants of families who didn’t own a family plot.

Row of Infant Tombs
Row of Infant Tombs

And through the lens, a tiny gray object on top of a tomb caught my attention and drew me in.

Baby Statue

What a quaint little statuette of an infant in bed, sleepily rubbing her eyes.  Then I noticed two nickels and a penny. At first I thought the number 11, but the tomb is way too small for this child to have been 11 years old.  Maybe she was 11 days old or maybe she died on the 11th day of life.  Regardless, this little object stirred so much emotion in me, that I left without even reading the inscription.  But now I know I will go back.

When I thought about writing this post, I had no idea which direction it would take, but I started by taking photos in the cemetery.  What I learned there is that I’m intrigued by the oldest of the tombs, the unmarked graves, and the many years of history that lie buried with these bodies.

Strange?  Yes.  Odd?  Maybe.  Weird?  You decide.  Even if I don’t share the cemetery photos with you in the future, I have a strong feeling that I will be visiting the older cemeteries of the bayous, and I have a feeling they will lead me to some very interesting tales of bayou people who went before us.

I’m sure you’ll want to read some of those, right?

No trick, all treat!



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    1. I guess in times gone by I might have thought of “visiting” cemeteries as morbid. I mean, I visit two up in Shreveport because of loved ones buried there, but never to just “visit”!!! But I don’t know if it’s my age or the intrigue or just a new chapter in my artistic life, but I was drawn there and am drawn to go back.

  1. Cemeteries hold a fascination for many of us.I seem to be drawn to the wonderful angel statuary. I’m not a religious person but there is something about weeping angels that calls me to them. Lovely post W! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Amy. Not all of us at all times are drawn, but I can say that I now agree with you that I’m drawn, and maybe I’ll come to learn what is I am to learn at these dwelling places of our old shells.

  2. Respect the dead and cherish the living.

    Hard learned life lesson.

    it is possible to vanish into the void and not fade away.

    Wow, heavy blu thoughts on a weekend.

    1. Exactly right, Blu! “Respect the dead and cherish the living.”
      This tradition goes way back – long before Los Catholocos landed here! The people o’ Mexico celebrate Dia de Los Muertos – despite being syncretized with their largely Catholic following now, actually hearkens back to their Aztec roots…those who follow Voudon (Voudou/Voodoo) call it Festival of The Dead and honour both the Ghede Lwa and their ancestors…both o’ these last two days (Nov. 1 & 2).

      Cultural traditions honouring the dead with “Feasts” – food, dancing, exchanging gifts and celebrating life go back a long way in The Americas with Indigenous Peoples – though not necessarily as an annual tradition – many First Peoples would hold a celebration when they moved their village to honour those who had died there that they might move on as well to the next journey; it eventually included re-burying them in mass graves (like the “mounds” found in many places): Gabriel Sagard, a French missionary writing in the 1620s, described the purpose of the rituals:
      “By means of these ceremonies and gatherings they contract new unions and friendships amongst themselves, saying that, just as the bones of their deceased relatives and friends are gathered together and united in one place, so also they themselves ought during their lives to live all together in the same unity and harmony, like good kinsmen and friends.”

      Of course, most Indigenous Peoples honour all those who have passed on regularly in any “prayer” or offering with a phrase translated often as “All my relations”, or more correctly, “We are all related”.

      1. There’s quite a bit more to the religious rituals involved with these days down here, but I decided not to go into all the details. It is interesting to note how cultural things from country to country overlap, and the overlapping occurs again when going from one belief system to another–which is the most objective way I can say that without my entire Christian background showing through and offending anyone who might visit!

    2. Talked to Choup, and he said you’re coming down when it gets a little colder and the flounder have moved in. Maybe I’ll get to ride down and see you at Fourchon and wet a line?

      1. Chemo wacked me hard this week so didn’t get a chance to work on moving treatment as treatment got in way. 40’s today and suffering.

  3. I love to read all the old tombstones and try to piece together what life must have been like. The stories are poignant and interesting, even if sad some times. On Mackinaw Island, a favorite tourist destination in northern Michigan, rather than shop and eat fudge and ride bikes or in horse-drawn carriages, my favorite place to visit is the old, old cemetery. I’ll be looking forward to more of these posts!

    1. Carolyn, did you know my mother was from Ludington? Though not near to Mackinac, I’ve heard how beautiful it is and have often thought I’d like to visit there some time. It’s an interesting coincidence that your favorite thing to do is visit the old cemetery. Can you explain what draws you there? Is it just the stories or is it more of a feeling?

      1. I’m so surprised that your mom was from Ludington. A fun connection! It would be a wonderful visit for you to see that area. It’s beautiful by the lake. And of course, Mackinac Island is charming and lovely.

        I like the cemeteries because one can try to piece together events of the town and lives of families. I have a strong respect for how hard life was long ago and the peril with which people often dealt and suffered.

        A great deal of Mackinac is strongly tourist-oriented and not to my interest, ie. fudge shops, moccasins, trinkets, sweat shirts and tees. I more appreciate the natural beauty and the personal history one finds on tombstones. If you come to visit one day, you are welcome to stay with us. We are about 90 minutes from Mackinaw City, from which the island ferries depart.

        Perhaps some day you might talk about the path that led your Mom from Ludington.

        1. I have been to Ludington several times, and it is such a quaint lake-side town. Last time was too long ago . . . about 1996, I think. We stayed at some lovely cabins walking distance from the Ludington beach. We went in October so we could enjoy the fall leaves on the way up, with 4 children in tow, AND I was pregnant. My mom passed in 1991, so she was already gone, but it was sweet to see all my relatives up there. I’d love to go back and drive on up to where you are and go to the Island. I need a new pair of moccasins, LOL!!!

  4. Cemeteries can be fascinating windows into the real lives of people who have lived and died in the same places where we now life. Some of the graves are very sad (children’s graves almost always are) but some are actually uplifting, celebrating a long life well lived. In our society death tends to be hidden away like something shameful, but it is a part of life and I think we live better when we have made our peace with it, so visiting cemeteries seems to me a natural and a good thing to do.

    On the same lines I was fascinated by this article about the discovery of some unique medieval wax models that have been found in Exeter Cathedral and which they think were part of a prayer for healing of specific parts of the body:

    In medieval England, as in many societies, people who had died were not extinguished, but merely translated to another mode of existence. Who is to say they were wrong?

    1. Kathy, I think you are spot on about facing the reality of parting this earth. As a child, I never attended a funeral until my grandmother died when I was 15. I got through it okay, but I stayed on the peripheral and wasn’t involved in the emotions of it all. In later years, I was asked to sing at funerals, and that was often a difficult thing to do. I still have a difficult time going to funerals, and never wanted to make my own children attend if it wasn’t someone close to use. But as Blu pointed out, I guess attending the funeral is the ultimate way to respect the dead. And with an entire generation of kids killing people in video games, I fear death is becoming a surreal thing—not something very real that they must deal with. Your observations are most welcome here!

    2. The same rule that is taught in Science class (when anyone is listening), the “First Law Of Thermodynamics” or Quantum Physics states: “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed.”. This came to us from long ago:

      Empedocles (490–430 BCE) wrote that in his universal system, composed of four roots (earth, air, water, fire), “nothing comes to be or perishes, but these elements suffer continual rearrangement”.

      Or as someone once put it to me; “Nothing really dies, it only changes shape”.

      Cemeteries are a great window to history (as ye so aptly put it)…the energy o’ those beings lives on in those they were closest to and all around us.

      …and now I’m off to a Victorian Séance… ;]

  5. you and I feel virtually the same regarding Halloween, cemeteries and funerals. And the videos I wish were banned. We went trick or treating as kids as did my kids. But, we were not dressed as ghouls unless it was a sheet over our heads pretending to be a ghost! Normally we dressed as a favorite super hero such asThe Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans or maybe a movie star. I usually had a simple eye mask and a paper grocery bag. My children were the same. But, the grandkids were dressed as zombies, mummies, vampires, rock stars, etc.

    I loved the photos of the old cemeteries. I love to walk thru them and read the stones. So much history to be learned.

  6. I love that you did this. After my Mom passed in 2009 something changed for me and I started my ancestry tree. I had never been intrested in this before. After nearly a year I had family back to the 1300 century. The cemetaries are a wonderful source.

    1. Hi Connie and welcome to the bayou. It’s interesting in human nature how the passing of a loved one stirs up things in us about knowing who we are and where we came from. Although I haven’t done ancestry research, my LilSis has done quite a bit, and it’s very, very interesting to see old documents and photos that others have posted on that are related to you and you might not have ever met them! I’m sure lots of distant relations have come into contact with each other through that site. What an amazing thing the world wide web is, right? And you’ve gone all the way back to 1300? Amazing!

  7. I don’t seek out cemeteries, but I do tend to check out the head stones when I am in an old one. Headstones can tell a complete story about the deceased. One day, I would like to take one of the guided cemetery tours in New Orleans. I think I’d be fascinated.

    1. The Historical Society in BR used to do a very cool thing where they did a “performance” in the oldest cemetery in town and “profile” three or four of the old graves. They relate the story of the person who is buried there while dressed up as the person might have been. They actually do some research and try to find out as much as they can on that particular person, but it’s often more about the history at the time. I don’t know if they still do it but at the time it was done as a fund raiser for the cemetery or maybe it was for the Historical Society. Might be a good way for some of these small old cemeteries to raise some money for much needed upkeep.

    2. I have a friend whose sister does N.O. tours but not sure what kind . . . . but I’m sure she knows which is the best cemetery tour to take. I’m sure it would be fascinating, too! As a rule I’ve never sought out cemeteries, but the ones down here with the raised tombs seem different somehow . . . different from walking around just reading head stones, these are all different shapes, sizes, and made of different materials. The folks who had less resources just painted the names on the tomb free hand, and some of the writing is very child-like. Interesting . . .

  8. I adore old cemeteries. I can wander in them for hours, reading the inscriptions, looking at the gravestone art and wondering about the lives of the people buried there.

    I was in one of Charleston’s oldest cemeteries just yesterday afternoon. We went to a wedding that was being held at the Circular Congregational Church, which was founded in 1681. We arrived with a good 30 minutes to spare and I took full advantage of the extra time to revisit some of the residents.

    I’ve yet to visit any that are like the ones in your area, with the above ground tombs all whitewashed and bedecked with flowers.

    1. What an historical treasure trove! Thanks for sharing the link, Gue`. A very interesting read, especially the evolution of the gravestone art. I had no idea! I’m sure our friend, Linda, will also find this intriguing!

  9. What a wonderful post. I spent some time in cemeteries while on my trip. Perhaps the funniest one deserved a pic on my new blog entry – a big, white gate with the words “Muse Cemetery” above it. It’s actually in the town of Muse, Oklahoma, but when I saw that, I just cracked up. It could explain a lot of things for those writers who wonder where their muse has gone off to!

    I found some extraordinarily interesting tombstones there, unlike any I’ve ever seen. A friend has seen some in New England – more about them, later. But I also was in a cemetery with many infant graves. Nearly all of the children were a year or less, and they all died over a two-year period. It seems to me it must have been a disease – measles? smallpox? – that raged through the community. Or perhaps it simply was a terrible winter, or drought. I’ll have to do some exploring.

    Actually, All Saints Day is part of Lutheran heritage, too. It’s a time to remember “the communion of saints”, both living and dead. Episcopalians and I think even the Methodists observe the day, too. I remember in my childhood Methodist church singing “For All the Saints”.
    The customs of whitewashing gravestones and such, or picnicing on the cemetery grounds, wasn’t part of our religious heritage. But of course culture plays a huge role.

    The older I get, the more I like to hang out in cemeteries. Honestly, I don’t think it has to do with any obsession with coming death. It’s more that like most older people I’ve gotten more interested in history.

    Now, I’m off to look at Gué’s article.

    1. Well, I guess it’s a coincidence that we’ve both been graveyard browsing? Or is there a better term for it? Maybe even an official term for doing that. I will have to go back and see if the row of infant tombs are all with a certain time period, which would explain a measles outbreak, most likely. I’m looking forward to reading your first return-home post. I think I’ll do that with my first coffee in the morning, two pleasures at once! Glad your’ back and thanks for taking the time to read and post!

        1. Thank ye Gué for those links – the QM will be most interested – we frequently spend time visiting & photographing old cemeteries. As an Archaeologist & Preservationist the QM can also repair & restore tombstones & markers…and as a Medium she sometimes gets more information when needed (as she has on a couple o’ visits to Chalmette Battlefield & Military Cemetery).
          Something ye may be interested in yerself – – a project to help catalogue cemeteries worldwide, creating an online resource for those digging up their roots (or history in general). There is an app for mobile devices so ye can map, photograph and share information on the spot (or after the fact).

  10. I replied yesterday but not sure it posted. I love cemeteries and looking at the families tree and all the unique ways to honor a loved one. Natalie and I both enjoy walking around them especially the older ones. So much of our history and culture can be observed if you take the time to look. I was really wanting to get out of the car and explore when we were down there but the boys wanted no part of it.

    1. Well, Tara, you and I will go next time, ok? It’s a rather small cemetery, so it would only take two hours at most. Not far from camp either. Let’s do that!

      1. That sounds great! Jason has a science teachers conference in New Orleans in May and he is hoping that Cherokee Nation gives him a grant to attend. If he does we will stop by on way to or from. Will let you know when we find out exact details.