Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Visiting the dead in South Louisiana: Obligation, atonement or fun?

            Diane Roberts, a professor of literature at Florida State, believes the South is obsessed with the supernatural because of our conflicted past.
            "Ghosts can be a metaphor and the South has a history of grinding poverty, slavery, war and genocide of native people," she said in a recent Associated Press article. "We are collectively very guilty and haunted by our past in this region."
            I’m a native of New Orleans, where we have a deep relationship with the dead, but I don’t see it as atoning for our sins. For centuries death existed within a short arm’s reach for South Louisiana residents, whether it was yellow fever, hurricanes or a bad sinus infection. People routinely died in great number.
            Because of the high water table, the dead were buried above ground in tombs and mausoleums. These “cities of the dead” remain throughout town, which is why we spruce them up on All Saints’ Day, the day following Halloween. Christians appointed Nov. 1 as All Saints’ Day to honor the departed Saints of the Catholic Church, plus try to convert those elusive pagans who won’t quite honoring Halloween.
            On La Toussaint, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation on Nov. 1, we would visit our deceased loved ones and decorate their tombs, perhaps giving the vaults a white wash job, weed the grounds around them or add wax flowers. As a child, it was a chance to play in the cemetery, even having a picnic on the tombs, but the day means more than that.
            “…just like Ash Wednesday, the day after Halloween, All Saints’ Day, is the time to gather and reflect upon the meaning of life and death, of mortality and immortality and how quickly we pass from one to the other,” writes David Cheramie in Acadiana Profile magazine.

            Call it an obligation or a chance to rectify our past, but visiting the dead on All Saints’ Day is a natural holiday for South Louisiana residents. But then, most days are.

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