From June 30th through July 5th, I visited New Orleans, LA for the Essence Music Festival. As a part of that trip, I also reveled in the rich spiritual heritage of the city. The highlight of that revelry was a visit on Tuesday morning to St. Louis Cemetery #1 where Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo” Queen of New Orleans was laid to rest in 1881 (just over a century before my birth). What can I say? It was a powerful and completely amazing experience to be near the resting place of such a well known, well respected, and highly magical person.
Around 11AM, I arrived at the cemetery gate with three others who knew nothing of M. Laveau or the spiritual heritage of the city. At the gate, I made offerings of Bacardi Gold Puerto Rican Rum and an old penny to Elegua as the Opener of the Way and the same to Oya as Lady of the Cemetery and Queen of the Dead. I had the intuitive sense that the offerings were accepted and so I entered. Of course my friends were already inside, starting to course through the Necropolis in search of M.L. We knew that she was near the front of the cemetery but with no map and no prior experience in such a place, we wandered. In our 20 minutes of searching, we discovered several places in the cemetery where spiritually-minded visitors had left offerings for the Dead. Each place was awe-inspiring, sacred, and beautiful. Between secret smiles and silent personal reflections, I explained to my three friends the significance of the offerings and the ways in which New Orleans style “Voodoo” and similar African-derived, syncretic traditions diverge from mainstream Christianity in terms of what constitutes an offering and the reasons for them.
At the 20 minute mark, we found her! One of my friends saw the plaque on the tomb and signaled the end of the search. I was so giddy I could hardly contain myself. I waited for the picture takers and tourists to roam in other directions before I placed my hand on her tomb and paid my respects. I left pennies for her and her neighbors, the other residents of the Dead City. A sense of contentment and peace washed over me after I laid the offerings down and said my prayers of honor and respect. I did not get a creepy feeling in the cemetery, which was actually a little surprising, but then again, I was not alone roaming the Necropolis at midnight under a moonless sky; it was 11AM, birds were chirping and people were out and about in NOLA.
I will never forget the experience of entering that place, laying down offerings, sending prayers, and touching the sacred. I am so grateful to have been granted access and to leave offerings. My givings did not have strings attached. I was not asking for anything in return; I just wanted to give to the spirits there, M.L. not being the least of them. I took pictures of the tomb for my ancestor altar because I think of M.L. as an ancestor-in-spirit. The pictures that I do not use for my altar will be destroyed. Also, if and when my altar changes and the inclusion of M.L.’s tomb no longer seems right (either to her or to me), I will destroy that image too. The way I am thinking about it at this point: I entered St. Louis #1 for spiritual reasons and a photo without a spiritual purpose would be disrespectful to M.L. I don’t want to hang it on my wall, to put her on display and say look how cool this is. That scenario just seems wrong to me. So, if the picture’s spiritual purpose (in this case, as a private altar item) ever expires, it will be destroyed. But until that time, I look forward to having M.L. among those that I honor as Ancestors.