New Orleans, which bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina's wrath, is perhaps best known for its raucous Mardi Gras celebrations, which continued yesterday with somewhat subdued festivities compared to ordinary times.
Of course, Mardi Gras's decadence derives from the Catholic tradition of observing Lent, the forty days that precede Easter, with abstinence, penance and introspection. Before infant baptism became the norm in the Catholic Church, it was a time for those preparing for Easter baptisms to reflect and study, and later for catechists to prepare for their confirmations. The notion that one needed to discipline oneself during Lent had practical sources as well. In the days before supermarkets, when all food supplies were local, the harvest plenty of the fall and early winter, when perishable food that would not survive the winter was gorged upon, usually turned to nail biting rationing in the late winter and early spring, until a new harvest came to fruition.
The first day of Lent, by tradition, is Ash Wednesday, and in parishes of liturgical churches that tend to high church observance, the faithful are anointed with ashes which, by tradition, are derived from the burning of the palm leaves waved on Palm Sunday (the week prior to Easter), as a symbol of their Lenten solemnity.
This makes today a fitting time to remember all those who died in Hurricane Katrina. The most recent count I am aware of is that 1331 bodies have been found in Louisiana and Mississippi, that there are 2300 people missing, and that a good share of, at least, 300 of the missing are likely dead as well.
In New Orleans, funerals aren't the purely solemn affairs that they are in Yankee climes, instead, they are exuberant celebrations of life. Today may be the Big Easy's Ash Wednesday, but lets all hope that in a year or two, the Big Easy will have its Easter as it is resurrected from a point closer to death than any modern city has seen since, at least, the Great Chicago Fire and the San Francisco Earthquake (the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 has somehow has failed to enter the national consciousness in the same way, despite being a more devistating tragedy and having more practical implications as this event was the main source of the county commission form of government that is now the norm in most U.S. states).