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On a Day Meant for Celebration, New Orleans Just Wasn't Itself

Cemeteries usually come to life here as people visit deceased relatives on All Saints' Day. But many residents haven't returned to the city.

November 02, 2005|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — All Saints' Day, typically a day of joy and revelry when families here visit loved ones' graves and pay their respects, instead was a solemn occasion tinged with melancholy Tuesday.

Missing were the lines of cars and visitors that in past years streamed into the city's landmark cemeteries. But activists from groups dedicated to preserving the city's graveyards were at the entrances of some and encouraged the few visitors to continue the ritual.

"Normally, you can't get a parking space anywhere near here," said Rene Fransen, vice president of Save Our Cemeteries Inc., as he helped set up a welcome table with a donation box at the entrance of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 -- the city's oldest burial ground. "This one is usually jampacked."

All Saints' Day, which is observed Nov. 1 by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans in many countries, is thought to stem from an ancient Celtic holiday.

In New Orleans, renowned for its ornate stone-and-marble above-ground tombs, families in past years would weed, spruce up and even paint the graves of their loved ones, cemetery preservationists said. Many tombs would be decorated with colorful wreaths, and collages of pink and white chrysanthemums and yellow daisies and marigolds.

Some families would offer libations of champagne, and tourists would often gather to observe the celebrations.

"It's not a day to mourn your family. It's a day to celebrate your life," said Fransen, whose group works to refurbish many of the city's historic graveyards.

But an estimated 80% of New Orleans' 500,000 residents left town after Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the city Aug. 29, and the atmosphere this overcast day was decidedly somber.

"It's tinged with an air of sadness and loss," said Louise Saenz, executive director of Save Our Cemeteries. "Even though it's a cemetery, because of the hurricanes and what we've lost recently, it's worse."

Some graveyards were damaged by flooding, preliminary assessments by Saenz's organization found, and others were battered by falling trees and flying debris. Flooding dislodged at least one casket, group representatives said.

Kelly Bienvenu, who turned 44 on Tuesday, said the day marked the first time her 75-year-old mother had not placed flowers on the graves of her parents and other close relatives at Greenwood Cemetery. Her mother was evacuated to Louisville, Ky., before the storm, and has not returned to New Orleans.

Bienvenu decided it was up to her to carry on the family observance of All Saints' Day.

"I got up this morning, and went to get flowers," said Bienvenu, who bought lilies to place at the tomb of her maternal grandparents and an uncle. "I said, 'I just have to do this.' It's tradition."

Shirley Blunt, 58, accompanied her 79-year-old mother, Celeta Jasmin, to two family tombs in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where they said more than a dozen relatives were buried, dating back to Blunt's great-great grandfather. The cemetery was built in 1789.

Jasmin placed red and orange silk flowers in metal holders attached to the tombs, as Blunt recalled how All Saints' Day usually spurred a bustling reunion of relatives and friends.

"You'd see people you hadn't seen in a year, but you'd meet them on All Saints' Day," said Blunt, whose family evacuated to Slocomb, Ala., after the hurricane but recently returned to check on their waterlogged home.

"The cemetery would be so crowded with people, you can't walk," Jasmin said.

"It's totally different this year," Blunt added with a sigh. "The city is totally different."

Mary Gates was terrified about what she might find at St. Roch Cemetery, a few miles away.

"Every year I come back here. I haven't missed a year. But it was hard coming back this year," said Gates, 55, as she stood at the base of a wall containing dozens of mausoleums, where her parents and grandfather are interred. Watermarks stained the stone 2 feet above the ground, but didn't reach the Gates' family tomb.

"I was just happy everything was OK," Gates said.

Dressed in a long white robe, Deacon Uriel Durr stood inside the St. Roch Cemetery chapel, his hand raised in prayer as he blessed the crypts of visitors' relatives interred there.

"It's healing for them to be here," Durr said. "A lot of people are suffering so much loss of their own, that having connections with their ancestors ... helps them."

At St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, Jules Hardy, 74, filled a vase with murky water from a spigot. The graveyard historically was reserved for free people of African descent or mixed race, with a separate section for slaves, Saenz said.

Stopping in front of a mausoleum with the inscription, "Hardy Family," he placed fresh flowers in the vase, removed his cap and bowed his head.

"I prayed for the dead -- for my people, and all the dead," said Hardy, after a few minutes of silence at the tomb containing his parents, grandparents and two sisters. At his side was his stepdaughter, Penny Irving, 42.

The retired longshoreman, who lost his home to Hurricane Katrina, said he also came to give thanks to his ancestors for watching over him.

"I feel blessed," said Hardy, adding that being able to observe All Saints' Day made "a whole lot of people realize how good it is to be living."

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