What makes a New Orleans jazz funeral so unique? There are a lot of characteristics of a jazz funeral that are different from a typical end-of-life service.
First, jazz funerals often include two processions, one from the church to the burial site and one that leaves the cemetery after the body has been laid to rest. Second, while a typical funeral is a somber affair, a jazz funeral begins in a melancholy tone but ends as a celebration.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Best New Orleans Jazz Funeral Songs
- Traditional Jazz Songs and Standards for a Funeral
- Best Soft Jazz Funeral Songs
The most crucial difference between a typical funeral and a New Orleans Jazz funeral is the music. Typical funeral music includes somber hymns and songs and a New Orleans Jazz funeral begins with dirges but finishes with flourishes.
Here are some of the most well known New Orleans jazz funeral songs.
COVID-19 tip: If you're hosting a Zoom funeral using a service like GatheringUs, test your audio before the ceremony, so you can anticipate any day-of-funeral issues. Make sure to create a unique playlist for the digital reception, wake, or other gatherings and send the playlist URL to the guests with the funeral thank-you cards.
Best New Orleans Jazz Funeral Songs
We know that the “best” New Orleans Jazz funeral songs are a matter of opinion, but here are some that we think are great. We’ll include more somber tunes usually played on the way to the cemetery, as well as the more upbeat songs that you hear after the body has been laid to rest.
1. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” by Charles Crozat Converse and Joseph Scriven
While “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is undoubtedly a typical funeral hymn, it is also often used as one of the melancholy tunes played on the way to the cemetery in a New Orleans jazz funeral.
2. “Flee as a Bird” by Mary Dana Shindler
Mary Dana Shindler, even though she was only 27, was not a stranger to grief. She wrote, “Flee as a Bird” after the deaths of her husband, infant son, brother, and sister.
3. “As I Lay My Burden Down”
The origins of “As I Lay My Burden Down” are not recorded, but the song is referred to as a “spiritual song.” Even though the lyrics include the line “Glory glory, hallelujah,” it should not be confused with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
4. “Feel So Good”
The origins of the song “Feel So Good” are also difficult to find, but this song is often used at New Orleans Jazz funerals. One source lists this song as especially appropriate as “happy music for meditation.”
5. “Didn’t He Ramble” by J. Rosamond Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, and Bob Cole
This song, written in 1902, begins with the lines,
“Didn’t he ramble?
Didn’t he roam?
Didn’t he wander?
So far from his home.”
6. “We Shall Walk Through the Streets of the City” by George Lewis
This song has particularly beautiful lyrics. The chorus says,
“We shall walk through the streets of that city
Meeting those that are gone long before
We shall meet on the bank of the river
Where we’ll meet to part no more.”
7. “Just a Little While to Stay Here” by E. M. Bartlett
E.M. Bartlett worked in the 1920s and 1930s and was a leader in southern gospel music. The lyrics are about a Christian’s impatient wait to enter paradise after the end of his or her life.
Traditional Jazz Songs and Standards for a Funeral
8. “Down By the Riverside”
“Down By the Riverside” is a traditional spiritual, so the composer and lyricist are lost with time. Even though we don’t know the origins, it is a beloved song that is often played at New Orleans jazz funerals. It has been used as an anti-war protest song as well.
Louis Armstrong recorded a popular version of “Down By the Riverside.”
9. “When the Saints Go Marching In”
When most people think of New Orleans Jazz funerals, they think of the song “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Like some of the other songs on this list, the song’s composer has been lost with time.
10. “I’ll Fly Away” by Albert E. Brumley
“I’ll Fly Away,” written in 1929, has continued to be a favorite hymn for decades. It is often used by the jazz societies that pay tribute to the deceased at a New Orleans funeral.
11. “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” by Kenneth Morris
Even though Kenneth Morris popularized “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” he may not have written the words or the tune to the song. One account says that Morris heard a porter singing a song at a train station.
Morris was so infatuated with the song that he returned to the station to write down the words. He popularized it and it eventually became commonly used at jazz funerals.
12. “Nearer, My God, to Thee” by Sarah Flower Adams
According to survivors’ stories, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was the last song played on the deck of the Titanic before it sank. Sarah Flower Adams was an English poet who wrote the lyrics for this famous hymn.
13. “Amazing Grace” by John Newton
“Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognized songs in the world and the story regarding its inspiration is often repeated. John Newton was a slave trader. He wrote the lyrics after a spiritual conversion. Read our guide on the best versions of "Amazing Grace" if you're looking for another rendition.
14. “Just Over in the Gloryland” by Ralph Stanley
The lyrics of “Just Over in the Gloryland” read
“Just over in the glory land
I’ll join the happy angel band.”
The uplifting tune makes it especially appropriate for a New Orleans jazz funeral.
Best Soft Jazz Funeral Songs
There are plenty of soft jazz versions of many funeral songs. The soft versions of these and other songs are commonly used in the slow, stately procession of the deceased on the way to the cemetery. Here are some to consider.
15. “Shall We Gather at the River?” by Robert Lowry
Besides writing music, Robert Lowry also served as a pastor. This song can be played as a soft jazz version for a funeral. River imagery is typical in many hymns and spirituals.
16. “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” by Doris Akers
Doris Akers wrote hundreds of songs during her career. She wrote this song after asking her choir to spend more time in prayer before a performance.
The prayer time was particularly impressive, and Akers reluctantly ended it so the choir could perform. She later wrote “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” to describe the feeling that came from such fervent prayer.
17. “Were You There” by William Eleazar Barton
To be fair, William Eleazar Barton probably did not write, “Were You There.” But he is the one who published this song in “Old Plantation Hymns,” which was produced in 1899.
18. “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” James Milton Black
Many famous artists recorded this song, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Loretta Lynn.
19. “Every Time I Feel the Spirit”
“Every Time I Feel the Spirit” was a spiritual with an unknown composer. Nat King Cole recorded a popular version of this song.
20. “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe
Julia Ward Howe’s husband did not approve of her songwriting. Howe was an abolitionist, social activist, and fought for women’s suffrage. The history of this song is rather complicated, and its chorus has been used to support many different causes.
21. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” by Sabine Baring-Gould
“Onward, Christian Soldiers” has been played in the background at important moments in history. Besides being chosen for President Eisenhower’s funeral, Winston Churchill also chose it to be played at a battleship church service during World War II.
Choose the Best Jazz Funeral Songs
The New Orleans jazz funeral processional is undoubtedly one of the enthusiastic ways to commemorate the end of an individual’s life. One who is unfamiliar with the tradition may not understand why the mourners seem so jubilant when they return from the cemetery.
Some say that the practice came from the African slaves who believed that loud noises made the transition from earth to heaven easier. It is also the result of the Christian belief of the afterlife. The family members are celebrating that their loved ones are free from pain and in heaven.
And the umbrellas that mourners often sport on the way back from the cemetery? They are used because it’s sweltering in New Orleans, and the mourners need a way to shield themselves from the sun.
- “Dixieland Music for Funerals by Dixieland Stomp New Orleans Funeral.” premierentertains.com/Dixieland%20Funeral%20Music%20New%20Orleans.htm
- Morel-Ensminger, Melanie. “Jazz Funeral for the Old Year.” Unitarian Universalist Association. www.uua.org/worship/words/ceremony/174619.shtml