Photo by Robert Vernon
Families begin cleaning the gravesites well before November 1. Colorful bouquets of flowers are placed around the gravesites while fresh sand is spread on the sites without cement covers. White candles encircle the graves and as the evening light begins to fade the cemetery comes alive in a blaze of light.
Lights of the Dead: Is Lacombe’s All Saints Day candlelight vigil rooted in ancient Maya tradition? One local history buff thinks so.
Along the north shores of Lake Pontchartrain in the village of Lacombe, Lake Road works its way into a primeval landscape of marsh, wetlands, hardwood hammocks and a towering horizon of pine flatwoods. Finally, at what seems the end of the earth, the lake’s blue waters beat gently against a rock jetty dotted with marsh reeds. Here the ancient shore’s exotic sunsets echo rituals practiced by Lacombe’s earliest ancestors.
Native Americans were the first to settle along the banks of the rivers and bayous that traverse this part of the Northshore, drawn by the area’s rich hunting grounds and navigable waterways. Archaeologists have found evidence that several tribes flourished here, and today descendants of Choctaw, Acolapissa, and Tchefuncte tribes still call the area home. After French explorer Pierre La Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville explored Lake Pontchartrain with the assistance of local Native Americans in 1699, Europeans and free people of color began to arrive and contribute to the local heritage. But unique rituals from old times remained and to this day some continue to be observed in communities around Lacombe. One is a solemn and blessed celebration passed through the ages that pays tribute to past generations—Les Toussaints les Lumieres du Morte—“All Saints Lights of the Dead.”
When Native Americans were still the dominant residents of this region, priests would travel by skiff to visit settlements and bless cemeteries along the streams and bayous. Today Father Kyle Dave with the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church blesses some of the same cemeteries each November 1—All Saints Day.
Local history buff Tom Aicklen is developing the hypothesis that a group of Maya, known as the Chacta, translated as “followers of the rain God Cha’ak,” left their Central American homeland after centuries of drought, and migrated for forty-two years through Mexico and along the Gulf coast. During their journey they would make periodic stops to raise crops.
“At each place they settled, you can trace the ritual of the lighting of the fires for the Feast of the Dead,” explained Aicklen noting that he believes the Maya brought their ritual to Lacombe, but performed it in May. “They would build bonfires in the woods to attract their descendants. They felt the stars were their descendants and by lighting the fires it would draw the spirit back to earth and they could commune with them.”
Aicklen believes that it was these Chacta natives who came to be known as the Choctaw, and that from their Pagan-style celebration evolved the Christian ceremony still observed in area cemeteries to this day. Pine torches were used for light and participants decorated the graves of their ancestors with evergreen boughs of juniper and cedar to create the form of an encircled cross, a Native American symbol for life and continuation.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Father Adrien Rouquette, a Louisiana Creole whose mother was part Choctaw, grew up among the tribe as a child, later becoming a missionary to the Lacombe Choctaw with hopes of introducing them to Catholicism. Rouquette had a deep devotion to nature and revered the Choctaw way of life. He grew his hair long, ate their foods, and eventually was invited to the Feast of the Dead.
Is there a connection between ancient Mayans and those who live in Lacombe today and annually observe a particularly beautiful and deeply-rooted All Saints Day tradition? The answer may well be lost in the mists of time.
What is clear is that today, 150 years later, this vibrant tradition continues carried on by Creole families descended from early Native American, African American, and French settlers.
“People come back for family reunions gathering at the cemeteries.” said Aicklen of those who return from far and wide for the event.
Under sprawling oaks, small family cemeteries dot the banks of bayous—some in the footprints of earlier native resting places.
LaFontaine, Williams, and Osey-Ordogne are among several cemeteries that come alive on the evening of All Saints Day. Families begin preparing the gravesites well before November 1. Colorful bouquets of flowers are placed around the gravesites and fresh sand is spread on the sites that do not have cement covers. White candles encircle the graves so that, as the daylight fades, the cemeteries glow with a blaze of white light.
The blessings begin at 2:30 pm, as Father Dave makes his rounds to eight cemeteries across Lacombe. It’s a spiritual brotherhood as families stream in during the day in time to receive the priest’s blessing, and afterward visit with relatives and friends to remember loved ones long departed.
Row upon row—the names, the legends, the lives memorialized by standing stones. Each grave is represented by a family member, whose privilege it is to stand beside it and share their loved one’s legacy.
Details. Details. Details.
The All Saints Day candlelight vigil, while open to the public, is a religious event, and the cemeteries are very small. Sacred Heart Church will post the event in local newspapers or you can call them at (985) 882-5229 for a schedule of the blessings.