by Craig Guillot
Just steps away from Highway 190 in Lacombe, La Fontaine Cemetery is an eerie place at dusk on the first of November. Every year on that night, Lacombe’s graveyards come to life. The lights of hundreds of candles become one flaming mass, illuminating the cemeteries through the woods and shining on the branches of towering pines and moss-draped oak trees. Locals emerge from the darkness, and a reunion with the dead begins.
La Toussaint, or the Lighting of the Graves, is an All Saints’ Day tradition that has survived since the mid-1800s. In the 19th century and early parts of the 20th, Louisiana cemeteries were often packed with people on the day after Halloween. In New Orleans, many would whitewash tombs and place yellow chrysanthemums at the graves; in Lafitte, a few families still hold nighttime vigils. But only in Lacombe has the custom remained so widespread and ingrained in the community.
The Lighting of the Graves is a ritual practiced mainly by blacks and Creoles of color, a racial segment that makes up a large percentage of the population of Lacombe. It’s a quiet community, with more than a half-dozen cemeteries. Many of them belong to entire families, such as the Williams, LaFrere, Ducre and Larent family cemeteries. A quick stroll through the La Fontaine Cemetery reveals almost a dozen headstones bearing the Cousin name.
Long before there were roads in the area, torches and pine knots were used to light the way to the graves for boats, as most of the cemeteries were located near bayous. But even before white men set foot in the area, native Choctaws had their own traditions, all of which were closed to outsiders. Adrien Rouquette, a New Orleans-born priest, poet and author, was one of the first white men to witness the native tradition of reuniting with the dead. He came to Lacombe as a missionary and eventually earned the trust of the Choctaws—so much so that they named him “Chahta-Ima,” meaning “like a Choctaw.” While he stayed with the Choctaw from 1859 until his death in 1887, many believe it was he who expanded these traditions into the local Catholic culture.
“I was brought up in it, my father was brought up in it, his father was brought up in it. The next generation is always carrying on,” says Peter Cousin, Sr., a born-and-raised Lacombe resident who remembers the tradition from when he was a child.
Cousin, like many others in Lacombe, claims a mixed ancestry of Creole, Cajun and Choctaw. He has seen life in the area like few others, having traveled on the lake by schooner “before the bridge” and lived the hard, rural existence where men eked out livings as farmers, boat builders and moonshiners. Over the years, electricity, highways, convenience stores and ritzy waterfront neighborhoods have all taken residence in Lacombe, but La Toussaint carries on untouched.
“It’s a part of our religion. We can’t get away from it. As Christians, we believe that we are going to meet with these people again in the next life, so we have to keep in contact with them,” Cousin adds.
Up to a month before All Saints’ Day, locals begin to beautify the cemeteries by cutting the grass, weeding the gardens and washing and painting the graves. Truckloads of sand are brought in, carefully carted into the cemetery and spread around the tombs with meticulous precision. Flowers are placed on headstones, the underbrush is cleared from the walkway and any sign of neglect is quickly erased in anticipation of the reunion with the dead.
“We want our parents’ graves to be the prettiest,” says Donna Brookter, a Slidell resident who grew up in Lacombe. “It’s the one day I feel obligated to them. I take off work, go out there and make sure that the headstones are clean.”
Brookter, like many others who visit the cemeteries on All Saints’ Day, grew up with the tradition. It is a day that she holds dearly, and she sees La Toussaint as an annual reunion with her deceased parents, who lie in La Fontaine Cemetery.
“After all the work is done and you walk in there on All Saints’ night, there is this warm feeling that comes over you,” says Brookter.
By the time the sky grows dark on La Toussaint, Lacombe’s cemeteries belong to the spirits. Families perch by the graves of their loved ones just as if they were there with them. The lights of candles shine upon the tombs and the faces of those who have come to reunite with the deceased. Local priests make their way through the cemeteries, blessing each grave with holy water and saying sermons for both the living and departed souls. Nowhere else could one find such a perfect resting place.
“I always feel better when I leave there that night,” Brookter says. “I’ve spent time with them. It’s thanksgiving, grief and happiness all at one time.”