All Saints' Day

New Orleans' most illuminating spirits are not found in a graveyard on October's last eve, but in the hauntingly beautiful traditions that play out the day after.
Rick Bragg

Maybe it is why this city is so hard to kill, even when drowned. New Orleans is too comfortable with death to be consumed by it.

In most American cities, this is the season of the witch, though the witch may decide at the last minute to be a ballerina, or a fairy princess, or a Hannah Montana, though I am not altogether certain what that is, and am almost surely three years behind on what the cool kids are wearing. It is the same in New Orleans, where real witches, vampires, and such are said to convene, and not just on Halloween, but on Saint Patrick's Day, Boxing Day, the third Monday in January, and whatever that odd, tacked-on day is in a leap year.

October 31 is a wild night in the Crescent City, where voodoo priests in tall, black top hats glare from behind white greasepaint, and zombies wail and stagger along Bourbon Street, though that might have been just a bunch of frat boys on the way back from Pat O'Brien's. I once saw a young woman dressed as a New York City taxicab, wearing mostly just a license plate. I blushed and looked away...eventually.

But what makes New Orleans special to me this time of year is not the howling of October 31 but the traditions that unfold, peacefully, quietly, in her cemeteries the morning after. Much like Ash Wednesday settles, usually, calmly and quietly after the insanity of Mardi Gras, the day after Halloween reveals one of the sweetest traditions I have seen in my rapidly changing South.

All Saints' Day in New Orleans is a day to honor and visit the dead, not in some philosophical way by thinking about them while on the living room sofa or in line for café au lait at Cafe Du Monde, but by traveling to the place of their interment and sitting with them. Perhaps the oldest holiday on the Western calendar, it dates back to 837, when Roman Catholics began honoring all saints, known and unknown, on the first day of November.

I am not saying there are caravans of people thronging through the Cities of the Dead, backed up six deep at a crypt, but if you pass by these old cemeteries you will see people, one or two or whole families, sprucing up the crypts–the water table requires that most New Orleans residents who can afford it be laid to rest in stone or concrete crypts above ground–and just generally being close to the loved ones who have gone on.

I will never forget, years ago, driving through the city one November 1 and seeing a family, dressed as if for church, filing through a cemetery gate with what appeared to be a picnic basket and an Igloo cooler. Later, I saw people eating oyster po'boys and drinking root beer in the shade of a crypt. I saw fathers and sons toast grandfathers and great-grandfathers with a clink of Abita bottles.

As I walked between the rows of stained granite and crumbling brick, trying not to look like a ghoul or an armed robber, I smelled something on the breeze that seemed odd here in such a holy place, a smell harsh and sweet at the same time. Only one thing smells like that. "Bourbon," I said. I watched two middle-aged men, brothers, I guessed, take a drink from a pint bottle of brown liquor, pour a swallow into the grass and dust, and shuffle away, not drunk, but apparently feeling better than when they shuffled in.

What a lovely notion, I remember thinking, that no matter what your faith, you really do live on and on, as long as someone, anyone, is willing to come see you.

One fall I went to Holt Cemetery, a resting place for the poor, where generations are buried not in stately crypts but in this almost liquid earth, and watched old men get down on their knees and smooth the dirt the best they could in a place of wooden crosses and tinfoil angels. One old man could not remember the name of the little daughter he had buried there, but came to see her, anyway.