All Saints Day for many New Orleanians is a pilgrimage. You go to mass, you go to the grave, you spruce it up. For at least one day out of the year, the cemeteries look full of life.
But, what if on your pilgrimage, you didn’t know where you were going?
That’s the case for me this year, on my first All Saints Day without my father. Usually, All Saints Day is like a family holiday before Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s our kickoff to the next two months where we’ll be seeing family constantly… but it’s a little different when someone in the family is missing.
For the approximately 372,000 Catholics in the city, All Saints Day is a Holy Day of Obligation. It’s a time to rest from work, and for family to get together, even if only for a few minutes to pay respects to loved ones who have died.
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We started planning for this day a week ago. As part of our obligation for the day, my family and I are going to mass at the St. Louis #3 Cemetery, where my grandparents are buried. We’ll sweep around the grave and put new flowers in the planters. At this point, we usually stop and pray the rosary. But not this year. This year, we’re going to rush back in the car and make the 40-minute drive to Avondale… to see nothing.
Simply put, my dad’s casket was too big to fit into our family tomb built in the 1930s. So, he’s alone, at a cemetery where the graves don’t look like majestic cities of the dead. This cemetery looks like a field, a vast land of nothingness.
If you haven’t dealt with the logistics of death (like me, before the summer), let me enlighten you. After the funeral, you’ve got to pay for a headstone, and honey, it isn’t cheap. Then you’ve got to order the headstone. Then you’ve got to wait 190 days for it to come in. Long story short, my dad doesn’t have a marker yet.
I’ve come here before, but I can’t remember what tree they had marked off after the funeral that showed the spot where he was going. All the trees look the same. All the graves look identical. There’s something empty and eerie about saying, “Excuse me” to the dead while you walk over them, looking for the loved one you know you won’t find.
I have flashbacks of getting lost in a crowd as a kid, calling for my dad and the panic of not being able to find him. But now I’m grown. Instead of a crowd, it’s a field, and it’s barren, but I still can’t find him.
To save my mom the heartache, I called the cemetery a week ago so someone could meet us and walk us to his spot. Even then, it’s still going to be empty, like many of the days we’ve had without him.
But you make the pilgrimage every year. You don’t let them fade into nothing just because they’re gone. You do it because they’re something to you. More than a memory, more than a dream in the night. They were here, and now you’re here, too, keeping them alive, even in the midst of nothing.