Society & Culture

… they say that in New Orleans is to be found a mixture of all the nations. … But in the midst of this confusion what race dominates and gives direction to all the rest? — Alexis de Tocqueville, 1832

The culture of New Orleans is distinctive from any other city in the United States. The combination of people, cultures, languages, and traditions creates a unique society that has been referred to as Creole. Originally referring to the children of French and Spanish blood born in New Orleans, the word now represents "the synthesis of the various cultures in the unique New Orleans melting pot." It is an apt description of the new and old world syncretism of New Orleans.

This mix of cultures from the earliest days of settlement has had a profound impact on the city as a whole. Black and white races intermingled and influenced each other's traditions and practices. Interracial relationships were not uncommon, resulting in a large population of "free people of color," since wealthy French aristocrats did not like the idea of enslaving their own children. This community had a great influence of the culture of New Orleans, especially in the areas of art and music. The voodoo religion came out of a combination of African tradition and Catholic practices. Some of the more recognizable elements of the influence of this culture include Creole cooking and jazz music.

The primary religion in the area was, and continues to be, Roman Catholicism. Colonization by both the French and the Spanish emphasized Catholicism and made it the state religion of the colony. Although Catholicism is no longer the official religion of New Orleans, its influence can still be felt. For example, the tradition of All Saints' Day, celebrated on November 1st, continues to be an important day of observance for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Families of the deceased visit and care for the tombs. Tomb repair and whitewashing were once common practices as well as decorating with flowers and immortelles.

The first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was held in 1838 (the first Madis Gras parade was held in Mobile in 1703). Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a grand celebration in New Orleans. This day marks the last day before the Catholic season of Lent begins. Traditions include family gatherings, parades, and costumes. In recent years, the celebration has expanded to include thousands of tourists descending upon New Orleans to engage in partying and revelry.

All Saints' Day

To people of the city, the real people of the city, as they like to be called, not to observe the day means to have no dead, no ancestors." — Grace King, 1895

All Saints' Day occurs each year on November 1st. Traditionally this was a major family event culminating weeks of tomb cleaning and maintenance activity. Flowers, mostly chrysanthemums, by the cartloads would come into the cemetery and the tombs would be decorated with vases of flowers and immortelles, or wreaths of flowers, beads or hair. During the day the cemeteries would be packed with people visiting the tombs and recalling past memories. Priests were on hand during the day and orphans, accompanied by nuns, would sit at the gate to collect donations.

In Louisiana, the celebration of death does not end with the funeral. The festival of the dead might be called the festival of the history of the city. Year after year from under their decorations of evergreens and immortelles, roses and chrysanthemums, the tombstones recall to the All-Saints pilgrims the names and dates of the past; identifying the events with the sure precision of geological strata.

Historically, this yearly maintenance and attention kept the tombs well sealed and protected the interior structure from the aggressive New Orleans environment.

It is the day in New Orleans when all the faithful go to the cemeteries to care for the graves of their loved ones. They whitewash the plaster walls of the vaults, clean the names cut into the marble slabs. And finally, they deck the tombs with flowers.

By the end of the nineteenth century, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 was overcrowded and had fallen out of favor as New Orleans residents elected the more fashionable cemeteries of Lafayette and Metairie. As interment activity fell, so did visitation and family maintenance activities, leading to much of the deterioration seen in the cemetery today. However, new interest in the cemetery as an historic site has spurred volunteers to take up some of the traditional limewashing chores and families still celebrate All Saints' Day at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.

Also, See Funerary Plants