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September 25, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Jazz Funerals: A New Orleans Goodbye

A musical procession for a memorable final send-off

Jazz Funerals: A New Orleans Goodbye
A Jazz Funeral for Michael P. Smith, New Orleans. (Wikimedia Common_

"Music here is as much a part of death as it is of life."

Sidney Bechet

A colonial mosaic

Death traditions in New Orleans often defy the somber demeanor expected in most North American funerals. Jazz is said to be the lifeblood of the city, and New Orleanians incorporate music into formal and casual occasions alike.

Louisiana's history comes from a mix of several cultures. While English is the predominant language there, Louisiana is known for having a vibrant Cajun French-speaking population, as well as a colorful array of various dialects, including Cajun, Creole and Yat. The mix of history and culture makes for interesting traditions—and funeral traditions are no exception.

Military brass bands hold a place in many cultural traditions in Louisiana. This carried over to funerals as well, in the form of a musical funeral procession. And in fact, a jazz funeral is actually not a funeral, but a funeral procession. Jazz funerals represent a combination of cultures coming together in mourning, mixing African American celebrations of life, brass bands, and a touch of Mardi Gras spectacle. 

What is a jazz funeral?

Simply put, a jazz funeral is a marching band-led funeral procession that leads the congregation toward the gravesite following a funeral service. The procession can also begin at the home of the deceased or the family home, accompanying the body to the church or funeral home and later to the gravesite. 

When a respected musician dies in New Orleans, a jazz funeral is likely to be held in their honor. Non-musicians may also have a jazz funeral upon request. Recently, jazz funerals have been held to celebrate the lives of youths who died unexpectedly:

"They were meant to help the deceased make the transition from earth to heaven and were not dissimilar from the Haitian Voodoo idea of celebrating after death in order to please the spirits."

—Rosy Edwards, METRO

The term 'jazz funeral' was originally coined by outside observers—not by real New Orleanians participating directly in the rite. Though this type of funeral procession has become known by this name, musicians from New Orleans who actually participated in them preferred the term 'funeral with music'.

A change of tune

A funeral procession is usually a solemn affair, but in New Orleans that's only half true. The first leg of the journey is a somber march. The musicians are subdued, family and friends cry, and the procession moves at a respectful pace. The music is slow, somber and respectful; Musicians play dirges like 'Nearer My God to Thee,' and other heavy, traditional African American hymns. 

At the gravesite, the body of the deceased is lowered into the ground. Once the procession has moved a respectful distance away from the cemetery, the music picks up:

"When the deceased is laid to rest – or they 'cut the body loose'– the mourners 'cut loose' as well."


The band begins to a more lively tune. The tempo becomes more and more lively, switching into swing standards like 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. Later, the band may play more current upbeat pop songs in addition to swing tunes.

Who can participate?

A jazz funeral procession is led by the marching band, followed by family, friends and others mourning the loss. However, jazz funerals are open to all, making them a large-scale community affair for the whole city to enjoy. 

Bystanders can join the procession, dancing, singing and celebrating in the street. Although everyone is encouraged to join the party, they are expected to march behind the band and the congregation of mourners in the 'second line'.

Those marching in the second line make use of props like umbrellas, large photos of the deceased, signs, whistles, hats and extravagant funeral attire to show their support. The combination of dance, music and New Orleans' unique flavor make for a memorable swingin' send-off.

Celebrating life

Music and spectacle are ingrained in all aspects of New Orleans culture, and funerals are no exception. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, jazz funerals have become less common. It is an expensive send-off that many families in New Orleans are no longer equipped to handle after rebuilding their lives and finances. 

However, jazz funeral processions still happen in New Orleans. They carry forth a mix of colonial influences, African American traditions and "put the fun back into funeral."

Interested in learning about funerary traditions from around the world?

The Fascinating Madagascan Funerary Tradition of Famadihana

Chinese Funeral Strippers and the Art of Achieving Renao

What is a Sky Burial?

Going Home: African-American Funerals and the Tradition of Celebration

Mexican Funeral Traditions

What to Wear to a Jewish Funeral

Islamic Funeral Traditions

Professional Mourning: Why Some Families Hire Strangers to Cry

Chinese Funeral Traditions

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