History of La Toussaint
In France, All Saints Day, or La Toussaint, is a public holiday in honor of ancestors and deceased family members as well as Catholic saints, especially those who have died as martyrs for their religion and faith.
There are often special religious services in local churches and families will go to the graves of their loved ones to place flowers on their headstones or plots. The typical flowers are Chrysanthemums and Dipladenia. Some families order special plaques with loving messages and place them on their family tombs.
Taking place on November 1st, All Saints Day is a public holiday which means schools, banks, post offices, and other government institutions are shut down in honor of this day.
La Toussaint gets it’s origins from the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. This festival signifies the beginning of the winter solstice during which the world is darker, earlier. The time of the year, according to this tradition, is when it was possible for the living to communicate with the dead.
Later on, the Catholic church adopted this tradition, notably transformed by Poper Boniface IV as a day to honor the mother of God and martyred Catholic saints on May 13th, but then reassigned by Pope Gregory IV in the 7th century to November and dedicated to all Catholic saints.
A Little About French Cemeteries
In France, the cemeteries are haunting, but beautiful. They are often frequented by the ever aging and thriving French elders who have lost loved ones during World War II and over the decades. It’s not unusual to see a French Mamie care for her family plot.
There is often little space in city cemeteries, so it is custom that families to stack coffins on top of each other to maximize the family plot. It is not unusual to see six family members in one family tomb. Many plots are covered with large slabs of stone, like granite, with photos and award or accomplishment mentions of each family member.
It is fascinating to see the oldest grave markers worn with time, so worn that they are barely legible. They date back hundreds of years and many family members choose to be buried together over the centuries.
The plots themselves can range from actual sculptures, small architectural buildings or tombs, graves of paupers marked with wooden crosses, and covered with flowers like rose bushes and dipladenia, the latter being extremely resistant to drought and frost.
In cities where American troops came to liberate France, there are graves honoring the fallen. There are also plots in honor of French soldiers and members of the French Resistance.
If you ever have time to wander through a French cemetery, I recommend it. It reminds us of our humanity, our limited time, and it reminds us of the loved ones that continue long after we will have perished. It’s one of those experiences that gets you thinking about life and love and our raison d’etre.