April 8, 2010
Here in New Orleans, it’s not that unusual to have a funeral end with wild dancing and laughter, to go from deep mourning to celebration in the blink of an eye.
I’d been to jazz funerals before. As a reporter working in the city, I’d written about them. As a lover of city culture, I’d attended a few on my own time. I remember the first one I saw: The dead man was a local musician, a young man who’d met a violent death.
I was one of hundreds walking soberly behind the man’s wife and two young daughters, all three of whom were dressed completely in white.
Then, as the music changed from funereal to joyful, I watched that same sober widow grab her skirt in one hand and begin to dance, her children following her lead. There was even a hot dog vendor who, catching wind of the event, was selling his wares along the road to the cemetery.
It was an incredible feeling, seeing that woman and her children twirling around, following the band. I remember thinking, “This is how death should be done. Life should be celebrated.”
But never before had I been to a jazz funeral for someone I mourned. Until now.
My friend suffered a brain aneurysm on a Saturday night and was dead a week later. Johanna was 53. Too young, too special, too needed, to die.
She left behind three children: two daughters, 14 and 15 and a son, aged 20. They are part of her legacy, her husband, John, said. “I see her in my son’s crazy hair. She’s there in the freckles across my youngest daughter’s nose. When I say something stupid, my middle daughter raises her eyebrow with such disgust, she looks just like her mother.”
Johanna herself is part of New Orleans’ legacy. She’d lived here for most of her life, the daughter of natives who briefly lived elsewhere but could not resist the city’s draw. She worked as a journalist and later at a local university.
Her trials and tribulations were uniquely New Orleans, as were the miracles and mysteries that touched her life. Johanna and her family lost everything they owned in Hurricane Katrina. When she and friends returned to New Orleans to gut her house, she found her wedding rings amidst the muck the storm had left behind. Somehow, the two tiny gold bands, sitting on a kitchen counter, hadn’t washed away.
Like so many others, Johanna fought to give her children a normal life after Katrina. She and John found a temporary home, replacement schools. Last year, the family was finally able to move into a permanent home on the same lot where their old home had stood. She was a survivor.
So Johanna deserved a send-off as wonderful as she was. John, a journalist and musician, knew the band and they’d agree to appear free of charge.
He promised, “You’ve never seen a funeral like this before.”
Jazz funerals, also known as brass band funerals, are distinctly of New Orleans, yet influenced by many different cultures, including Italian, Irish and West African, said Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University.
“All the diversity present in New Orleans is unified by cultural practices. That unity that allows them to face things together.”
Traditionally, the funeral band plays slow dirges as the mourners accompany the body to the cemetery. Once the body has been interred, the music picks up and the dancing begins. People traditionally form a “Second Line,” with many following an umbrella-carrying leader, waving their handkerchiefs and tissues in time with the music.
The switch in pace, the move from somber walking to joyous movement, serves a purpose, Raeburn said.
“The band is helping you feel and express your grief. It’s strictly functional, doing what needs to be done to get you feeling.
“It’s a catharsis. It represents the coping mechanism Orleanians use to get through life. We didn’t need Katrina to tell us things were rough here. Crime and poverty are every day in certain neighborhoods, and yet music and brass bands on the street allow people hope and joy and to get beyond the harsh realities of life.”
The funeral home was packed, a testimony to Johanna’s life and the love so many felt for her and her family. There was an overflow room, where people stood and struggled to hear the priest and the readers.
I sat in one of the front rows, behind the extended family. It was a funeral and crying was expected, welcome. Yet I fought the tears. It was easy to be strong when the priest spoke, mispronouncing my friend’s name. It got tougher when her two daughters rose to read from the Book of Wisdom. I broke, briefly, when her son did the same during his eulogy,
At the service’s end, a representative from the funeral home thanked everyone for coming, then walked away. We still sat, waiting.
Since Johanna had been cremated, there was no body to follow out the door.
And then those first somber horns sounded from outside the room and the tears began to flow freely.
The first song was “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” a traditional heartbreaker chosen just for that reason. “I chose it because I knew it would make me cry, and I wanted to have that release at the end,” John said.
The band walked up the center aisle, led by a woman in white waving a white umbrella. Her moves were perfectly timed to the music, and she struck poses as she went. To outsiders, her actions might have seemed comical; here it just felt right.
Johanna’s family walked behind the band. We followed behind them. The music stayed slow until everyone had moved outside.
Then like flipping a switch, the rhythm picked up. “Just a Little While to Stay Here.” “Over in the Gloryland.” “When the Saints Come Marching In.” The woman in white began twirling, a huge smile on her face, her umbrella held high. She grabbed John and pulled him into the middle of a circle of friends, dancing first with him and then leaving him alone to wave the umbrella himself.
The tears weren’t yet dry on his face, but he was smiling.
People were clapping, laughing. The woman in white took back the umbrella and, scanning the crowd for someone else to dance, handed it to me.
So I danced.