Part of the Catholic calendar since the fifth century, All Saints’ Day (also known as the Feast of All Saints, Hallowmas, and All Hallows) has its origins in Roman, Germanic, and Celtic celebrations seated in prehistory. Today it is celebrated on November 1, although some Eastern Orthodox and Protestant denominations celebrate it on the first Sunday of November.
The feast day began as a holy day in which the lives of the Catholic Saints were remembered and honored. However by the time of the arrival of French and Spanish colonists to New Orleans, the day rather signified the recognition of all saints, “known and unknown,” and more generally the remembrance and communal mourning of the dead by their survivors.
By 1853, the oldest above-ground cemetery in New Orleans (St. Louis Cemetery No. 1) was 65 years old, and the imported traditions of above-ground burial and observance of All Saints’s Day enjoyed great significance in the rituals of the Catholic and Protestant communities. From the Catholic St. Louis Cemeteries to Protestant Girod Street, municipal Lafayette, and fraternal Cypress Grove and Odd Fellows’ Rest, the day was observed and reported on – not only as a day of mourning, but one of cultural spectacle, high style, and great charitable expectations.
In a city so often prone to annual epidemics, the ravage of Yellow Fever that gripped New Orleans in 1853 was horrific – 8,000 deaths were documented from the rise of the “sickly season” in May through the last throes of the epidemic in November. Nearly 5% of the city’s population had fallen, many of whom were recent Irish and German immigrants.
In the cemeteries, the death toll was at times overwhelming. On August 7, 1853, insufficient manpower and strains on resources resulted in a horrific state of affairs at the gates of Lafayette Cemeteries No. 1 and 2. The Daily Picayune lamented the following morning:
… it is a sad enough necessity that we should live in the midst of an unsparing epidemic… But it should be the last reproach a city should receive, that she cannot bury her dead decently and respectably, in accordance with the feelings in which every human being participates.
To make matters worse, the redemptive first frost of autumn – that which would kill off the remaining fever-carrying mosquitoes – arrived late in 1853. By the day of All Saints’, cemetery sextons remained in struggle to inter the dead quickly.
With ever more departed loved ones to remember, New Orleaneans set out in droves to the cemeteries, carrying with them candles, crape paper, immortelle wreaths, and flowers with which to decorate graves. By the 1850s the accoutrements of mourning had cultivated their own economy. Specialized dress, decorations, accessories, and stationary were dedicated to the ritual of mourning. Such fashionable gestures were on full display on All Saints’.
Among these asylums was that of the Catholic orphan boys of the Third District, which cared for 300 children in October of 1853, and predicted another 100 within the next month. This institution, among others, stood present at the Catholic cemeteries on November 1, hoping for enough donations to build a new wing to accommodate their new charges.
In 1853, All Saints’ Day was on a Tuesday. Said newspapers of the day, “every avenue leading to the ‘cities of the dead’ was crowded with a dense throng of jostling pilgrims, each bending under a load of flowers, decorations and waxen tapers, or of whatever else might serve as offerings to the memories of departed kindred, therewith to decorate their tombs, and to stand as mute emblems of that hope which pierces beyond ‘the dark valley and shadow.’”
Yet the pall of epidemic’s devastation burns through even the most endearing recollections of All Saints’ Day 1853. “L.” concludes his letter not with the solemnity of honoring the dead, but with the discussion of the recent suicide of a New Orleans lawyer:
He was buried on Sunday [October 30] followed to the grave by a large number of citizens. While the long cortege of carriages which followed his remains were passing slowly down the street to the Protestant Cemetery, another funeral came dashing along Hevia Street [now Lafayette Street], followed by a half dozen empty carriages, and all driven at a smart trot, as if in a hurry to get the dead out of sight as soon as possible. The latter procession had just time to cross the path of the former ere it came up making a forcible contrast in appearance and character between the two.
Walter Farquhar Hook, A Church Dictionary (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1852), 16.
“Burying the Dead,” Daily Picayune, August 8, 1853, 1.
“Female Orphan Asylum,” Daily Picayune, October 23, 1853, 2.
“All Saints’ Day,” Daily Picayune, October 28, 1853, 1.
“All Saints’ Day,” Daily Picayune, October 31, 1853, 1.
“All Saints’ Day,” Daily Picayune, November 2, 1853, 1.
“All Saints’ Day,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, November 2, 1853, 1.
“Correspondences,” Baton Rouge Weekly Comet, November 6, 1853, 1.