January 18, 2022

New Orleans “Jazz Funerals”

New Orleans is renowned for its extravagant Mardi Gras celebrations, music, the french quarter, culture, beauty, and voodoo. It’s history comes from a mix of several cultures. With English being the dominant language, Louisiana is a mixing bowl of languages including French, Spanish, French Creole, Cajun, and Croatian. This colorful array of history and culture has made an influence on their traditions – with funeral traditions being no exception.

Funeral traditions in New Orleans have defied the somber demeanor expected in most North American funerals. The people of New Orleans incorporate their love of music into formal and casual events alike. Brass bands are a part of many traditions in Louisiana. Funeral processions have included music to combine their cultures and come together to mourn. These processions mix together African American celebrations of life, brass bands, and a Mardi Gras-like marching band. 


What is a Jazz Funeral?


The performance of jazz funerals is unique to New Orleans, specifically among the African American community. This tradition became popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A brass band plays somber songs at the beginning of the march. Behind them is the “second line” which consists of family members and friends who are marching from the funeral site to the burial site. The attire worn by the progression can range from suit and tie to iconic costumes. 


What does the procedure look like?


Jazz funerals follow a certain ritual. Before the funeral service, there is a wake, where family and friends join before the service. Once the wake is complete, the brass band accompanies the body to the church for the funeral service followed by the second line. After the service is complete, the brass band and second-line travel with the body to the burial site with the brass band leading the way. During this travel, the band will play somber and respectful music while family and friends mourn.

Once the deceased has been laid to rest and the procession has moved a respectful distance away from the cemetery, the mourners are able to cut loose and celebrate. The band begins to play a more upbeat tune and the atmosphere becomes lively.


Who can participate?


A jazz funeral is led by the marching band. Following them are the family and friends who are in mourning. But this does not limit who can join the procession. Jazz funerals are open to the community for enjoyment. Anyone can join in, dancing, singing, and celebrating the life of the lost. When joining in on the celebration, they are expected to march behind the second line. 


What do jazz funerals look like today?


Recently these types of celebrations have become less frequent. Today, the majority of jazz funerals are for respected musicians, although anyone can request one. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is the cost, as the expenses it takes to perform this ritual are quite high. People today have started leaning towards smaller, less expensive funerals. 

The second reason is due to the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time jazz funerals and other cultural traditions were silenced as Louisiana took a massive hit from the virus. Funerals and gatherings were given restrictions and funeral homes were overwhelmed. With emergency protocols being implemented it became impossible to hold traditional jazz funerals. 

While the performances have lessened over the years, Jazz funerals are still popular throughout Louisiana and will always be an important element of the city’s culture. We can’t think of any better way to celebrate the lives of the important people who made an impact on their community. Jazz funerals are a joyous experience that differs in so many ways from the traditional American funerals a lot of us have known. 


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