Celebrating Saints, Souls in a Ravaged New Orleans

November 1 is All Saints Day and November 2 is All Souls Day in the Roman Catholic calendar. Traditionally, the Catholic faithful of New Orleans spend those days cleaning and decorating the tombs of their loved ones. Eve Troeh reports on this year's observations, the first since Hurricane Katrina devastated many of the city's cemeteries.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Today is All Souls' Day. It's a day in the Catholic Church where people pray for dead family and friends and ask the saints to give them peace. In New Orleans, it's a celebration, and in past years, hundreds of families would go to the city's famous above-ground cemeteries. This year, we sent Eve Troeh to a few of these cities of the dead to see how the tradition is holding up.

EVE TROEH reporting:

New Orleans' cemeteries are cheerful places on All Saints' and on All Souls' Day. St. Louis Cemetery Number One is the oldest in the city, built in 1789. It lies just outside the French Quarter, so it also gets the most tourists. The people cleaning up these tombs are mainly cemetery groupies of sorts, tour guides or historians. And some have seen mischievous offerings. Betty Bagert with the group Save Our Cemeteries was puzzled at first by a gray plastic pouch at the base of a tomb.

Ms. BETTY BAGERT (Save Our Cemeteries): This is an offering that someone made. Instead of flowers, they gave a dinner type of thing that the Red Cross gave, rice oriental style.

TROEH: St. Rock Cemetery sits in a lesser-known part of the city, the Eighth Ward. It got seven feet of floodwater. Workers hauled two tons of debris out of the cemetery to get it ready for All Saints' Day visitors.

Mr. CHRISTIAN PADAO(ph): It's coming off.

TROEH: Christian Padao has come to scrub at the brown water stain on his family tomb. The tomb belongs to the family of his wife, Ann Solsio(ph).

Ms. ANN SOLSIO: This is my mother, Olivia Solsio. My father...

Mr. PADAO: My daddy polished that--made that.

Ms. SOLSIO: ...and his father made the tomb.

Mr. PADAO: My father came from the old country, an Italian named Petha Paul(ph). He gave me the granite and my daddy cut it and polished it.

TROEH: Padao remembers before the hurricane when there were crowds and fresh chrysanthemums on almost every tomb. Today, only a dozen or so families have come to visit, and the flower shops aren't even open. Padao takes time to wash away dirt from the tomb next to his.

Mr. PADAO: See if we can get--help this person right here while we're here. Maybe I can give a little wash-down on this one. Yeah, because I don't see anybody here doing anything.

TROEH: St. Rock Cemetery is named for a saint who healed plague victims in the Middle Ages. The graves date to the 1850s when a local priest prayed to St. Rock to save his congregation from yellow fever. Today Deacon Yuriel Duhr(ph) prays for people from his church, who lost their homes in the hurricane. He strolls between the marble fortresses of the cemetery in a white robe, chatting with families and blessing tombs. He didn't expect to see anyone.

Mr. YURIEL DUHR (Deacon): I thought it was going to be really sparse because, you know, there's nobody in the neighborhood, but a lot of people came from different areas of the state to come down here and just to pay respect to their loved ones.

TROEH: Anna Ross Twichell couldn't make it to the city for All Saints' Day, though. She's a 13th-generation New Orleanian whose family came from Haiti in the 1700s. She's been living in Georgia since Hurricane Katrina hit, and she couldn't afford a plane ticket back. Twichell usually throws a party at her family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery Number Two.

Ms. ANNA ROSS TWICHELL: We catch up on how you're doing and we share gumbo at the tomb and, well, this is the first time in my life that I have not been to a tomb of a family member on All Saints' Day. It's like not having Christmas, really a peculiar feeling.

TROEH: The tombs here are built just like the houses, with brick and plaster and iron decoration. New Orleanians find comfort in their cemeteries. They call them cities of the dead.

Mr. ROB FLORENCE (Cemetery Scholar): I think on a bigger level, these cemeteries reflect the city of New Orleans in every single way, you know, social history, geological, geographical, racial, just every aspect of its history.

TROEH: Cemetery scholar Rob Florence says they feel like the city, too: diverse and culturally complex.

Mr. FLORENCE: People that you see in the cemetery are definitely grieving, and not necessarily individuals. They're grieving the city.

TROEH: Those who've come to the cemeteries to celebrate are not only praying for the dead, but for the rebirth of their communities. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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