In both ancient and modern contexts, Carnival is traditionally a time of celebration of life, focusing on earthly delights in the face of mortality. Yet despite these overarching themes, death and cemeteries still creep in. Beginning in Europe and later thriving in New Orleans, death has a habit of crashing Mardi Gras parties.
The Triumph of Death in Florence
In 1930, the Times-Picayune related an age-old story of one of the most famous appearances of Death at Carnival, in Florence, Italy, in the early 1500s:
Then, suddenly, there came in sight a fiery procession, every member of which carried a torch. Under the torch flame it could be seen that every rider wore a death’s head and a black shroud. The death’s march came closer, and the horrified spectators saw that halfway down the line of parade was a covered cart drawn by four oxen, all four hung with black cloths painted with skulls and crossbones…
On a pedestal in the center of the roof [of the float] stood the figure of Death, with the light the torches streaming through his hollow eye-sockets and empty ribs, and in his hand his scythe. At his feet lay six open coffins, within which could be seen six bodies wrapped in shrouds…
When the procession reached the public square the skeleton attendants blew a trumped blast, and the shroud-wrapped bodies stood up in the coffins and chanted:
“As ye see us, dead we be;
Dead like us, ye we’ll see;
We have been just as ye,
Ye shall be just as we.”
The Times-Picayune goes on to declare that maskers and celebrants in the street were so horrified by this “joke” of a procession that Carnival would not be celebrated for years to come.
While the ban on Carnival is likely untrue, the parade of the Triumph of Death is one of the most famous elements of the history of Florentine Carnival. Where Florence may ever pale to its Venetian counterparts in pre-Lenten gaiety, the city of the Medicis was famous at least for scaring the masks off their partygoers.
Vasari’s account of the parade describes a car (float) decorated by di Cosimo to appear as “a mobile cemetery,” from which the costumed dead would spring from either tombs or caskets, and sing to the spectators of their inevitable mortality. The procession was “designed to terrify, but it also provided shock value and gruesome entertainment.”
In many ways, the procession would have flown in the face of the reason of Carnival – memento mori (reflections of mortality) belonged in Lent, not in the celebrations preceding it. Some analyses suggest that di Cosimo and his patrons created the procession as an allegory of the Medici family returning from exile (i.e. “the dead”), which may have explained this incongruous presentation of the macabre.
Outside of carnival context, the Triumph of Death appears to have been a common theme among sixteenth century artists.
The North Side Skull and Bones Gang has its origins in the early 19th century and developed in the early 20th century alongside other African American Mardi Gras traditions like the Baby Dolls and Mardi Gras Indians.
In a tradition that continues today, members of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang wake up before dawn on Mardi Gras day and parade from the Backstreet Cultural Museum through the Tremé neighborhood ringing bells, shaking rattles and shouting, dressed as skeletons. Much like the Renaissance parade of Florence, the North Side Skull and Bones Gang reminds us all that “death is always lurking, and sooner or later, it will come knocking at your door.”
They also wear apron cloths with the words “You Next” written on them, lest onlookers misinterpret their purpose.
While the North Side Skull and Bones Gang rattles their memento mori through the streets of Tremé on Mardi Gras day, a different troop of skeletons marches from Uptown into the French Quarter on the same day. They also appear on the Friday before Mardi Gras.
On the Friday before Mardi Gras, the procession of Le Krewe D’Etat is populated with skeleton-masked marchers, the Skeleton Krewe. Founded in 1999 and added to the parade of D’Etat in 2005, the Krewe is comprised of “Artist, School Teachers, [Librarians], Fire Fighters, Attorneys, professors and Office Workers and more,” ranging in age from late 20s to early 60s.
In its classical purpose as a time of celebration and role reversals, Mardi Gras is a time where anyone can be anything they want to be. New Orleans’ great tradition of costuming emerges in full force, and the expression of so many human experiences bursts forth – be it in the form of vivacious parades or celebrations of death. From Renaissance Italy to the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, the grim reaper has frequently had a place at the parade.
Next time we visit New Orleans cemeteries in Mardi Gras traditions, we look at times when the party entered the cemeteries themselves – the St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 Marching Club, and a mad cemetery caretaker.
 Landon, William J., Lorenzo di Filippo Strozzi and Niccolo Machiavelli: Patron, Client, and the Pistola fatta per la peste (University of Toronto Press, 2013) 49-52.