What to Know about The Day of the Dead in New Orleans

In the Big Easy, Halloween festivities are second only to Mardi Gras.

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Halloween in New Orleans, like the city itself, is best described as a gumbo. From Catholicism to Voodoo, traditions from the its smorgasbord of cultures and religions have melded together to create what is best described as a code red, five-alarm, city-wide costume party that makes however your city celebrates look like a junior league tea party. The best way to see this? New Orleans’ Day of the Dead.

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos originated amongst the Mesoamerican tribes of Mexico as a day for families to gather and pray for their deceased loved ones at home altars or shrines and at cemeteries. The common iconography of the holiday is calaveras or skulls, which were seen as a symbol of rebirth by the Aztecs who combined this representation with the Christian rituals brought to them by Spanish priests. These skulls are often painted in colorful fashion with floral crowns of marigolds and roses. Revelers will paint their face to resemble one or leave edible sugar skulls at the altars.

How is it celebrated in New Orleans?

Day of the Dead has become widely celebrated in many American cities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, but in New Orleans it takes on a Carnival-esque theme that makes it feel like a second Mardi Gras. It also merges with the traditionally Catholic holy day known as All Souls Day, where followers would cover the graves and tombs of the deceased with flowers and other tokens. Voodoo also has its own Day of the Dead where offerings are left to Gede, a figure of death and regeneration in the religion, including “dumb suppers” of spicy food (We also hear he likes rum infused with Scotch bonnet peppers.)

Where should I go to see all this?

From parades to parties, there is no shortage of events to pick from, but a few standout gatherings include:
Ogden Museum: The Southern art-focused museum in the city’s Central Business District recently started an annual exhibit featuring a different artist’s interpretation of a Day of the Dead Altar dedicated to a specific figure in the New Orleans community. Last year’s altar was made in honor of Mardi Gras Indian leader Big Chief Bo Dolis.
Save Our Cemeteries Tour: New Orleans’ above ground cemeteries are one of the city’s most unique features, but also one of its most fragile. Last year, the city closed off it’s oldest St. Louis cemetery #1 to the public to protect it from further damage while many of its tombs undergo restoration. The most famous of those tombs belongs to legendary Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, which has been recently restored. You can–and should– still visit it with a guided tour from Save our Cemeteries, which operates as a nonprofit and puts all donations back into preserving New Orleans cemeteries. Since the days surrounding Halloween are often busy, you can book ahead on their website.
Voodoo Fest: The annual music and arts festival held over Halloween weekend becomes one giant costume party and the perfect place to show off your sugar skull face paint work. This year’s lineup features New Orleans transplants Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, the must-see Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Charles Brady and his Extraordinaires.

Need more to do? Check out local alt-newspaper Offbeat or radio station 90.7 FM WWOZ for more events leading up to the weekend.
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