New Orleans Jazz Funerals: Music, Processions & What to Expect

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Like all things in New Orleans, Jazz funerals are vibrant, jubilant celebrations. New Orleans loves parades on just about any occasion. The most popular parades happen during Mardi Gras, but this isn’t the only street procession that calls New Orleans home. Another tradition is the famous Jazz Funeral. 

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Jazz funerals celebrate the beauty of life after death. They’re common for well-known community members, typically male musicians. Family, friends, jazz musicians, and more gather for these lively funerals. In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about New Orleans Jazz funerals. 

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Where It Started: Brief History of New Orleans Jazz Funerals

New Orleans Jazz funerals have a rich cultural tradition. It all comes down to the moment of death. In West African culture, mourners begin funerals by loudly and vocally expressing their sorrow. By the end, they were laughing and celebrating in a joyous affair. Rejoicing is done at specific moments to celebrate the spirit’s ascending to heaven. 

This West African tradition found a home in New Orleans jazz culture. By the 20th century, funerals were a time to perform the latest form of music — jazz. Blending both European and African influences, this brass music is unlike none other in the world. Today, this is still a well-known way to celebrate the passing of a prominent community member within the New Orleans community. 

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New Orleans Jazz Funeral Traditions & Protocol

All of the traditions and culture associated with New Orleans jazz funerals are a way to help the deceased person find their way to heaven. It’s a way to celebrate the soul no longer being tied to earthly life.

Today, this funeral practice includes a blend of many cultures, both old and new. Here are the most common traditions and protocols. 

Procession, marches, and parades

The procession itself is a way to bury prominent society members with the jazz music they loved. The procession goes from the funeral service to the burial site. As mentioned before, these processions begin as a somber affair. Guests express their grief and sadness. During this time of sorrow, the band plays slow Christian hymns. 

Once the body has been laid to rest, everything changes. The tone picks up, and the band plays up-tempo music. There is dancing and celebration since the body has now been “cut loose” from this earth. There will be a parade-like march through the streets in excitement, and everyone is welcome to join in. 

The first and second line

One of the essential parts of jazz funerals is the first and second lines. The first line, also called the main line, is made up of musicians, family, and friends of the dead. These are the people who knew the deceased personally and closely. Behind the main line is the second line. This is a larger crowd of people who might not have known the deceased personally.

Over time, the second line developed into a force of its own. Now, the second line is often made up of social club members. These members parade through the streets displaying the club’s name and visiting specific places, usually bars and private homes. There’s cheering, drinking, clapping, and singing. People still join these clubs today to secure a brass band for their own funeral.

Social clubs

Where did these social clubs of New Orleans come from? Historically, it was all but impossible for anyone in the black New Orleans community to obtain insurance. The cost of a funeral was steep for the average townsperson. 

To make these occasions more affordable, social aid groups began to form. They collected dues over time from their members. These dues afford the well-known extravagant funeral celebrations. Today, these aid groups are still around and now offer a social component for members as well. 

Funeral umbrellas

When you think of New Orleans funerals, you likely think of a sea of umbrellas. The history behind them is simple. The Louisiana sun is hot! Mourners carry umbrellas to protect themselves on the walk to the cemetery. Once the body is laid to rest, these umbrellas turn into a prop for dancing and fun. 

Today, these umbrellas aren’t likely to be plain. It’s common for mourners to decorate them and dress them up. They reflect the color and excitement of New Orleans while adding artistic tradition to the jazz procession. 

Funeral songs

There are many funeral songs specific to the New Orleans jazz funeral tradition. Remember, the first walk is sorrowful, relying on slow hymnals. Later, this occasion turns joyous. Music is used to reflect the feelings of the crowd. Here are some of the most popular funeral songs:

  • “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”
  • “Down By the Riverside”
  • “As I Lay My Burden Down”
  • “When the Saints Go Marching In”
  • “Didn’t He Ramble”
  • “Feel So Good”

Tip for virtual funerals: Travel restrictions and social distancing mean many of us can't travel to New Orleans for a jazz funeral. If you're hosting a virtual or hybrid funeral using a service like GatheringUs, however, you can incorporate some of these songs to give the funeral a New Orleans jazz feel. 

New Orleans Jazz Funerals: FAQs

Now that you know what to expect at a funeral in New Orleans, let’s answer some of the more common questions. These funerals are always evolving and changing. Experiencing a jazz funeral for yourself is the best way to discover this rich tradition. 

How do you have a New Orleans jazz funeral?

Historically, New Orleans jazz funerals were only for musicians or other well-known community members. Today, anyone can request a jazz funeral. The bands themselves are usually available for hire, so it’s not uncommon for average folk to have their own jazz funerals nowadays. 

If you become a member of one of New Orlean’s many social clubs, these likely include some kind of jazz funeral tradition of their own. As long as you’re respectful, these funerals are now open to anyone. Jazz funerals are increasingly common for youth who die under tragic circumstances. The joyous nature is a form of solace for the family. 

How do you find and see a jazz funeral in New Orleans?

Many New Orleans visitors understandably want to catch a jazz funeral in action. Unfortunately, these aren’t something you can plan to see. They have to happen upon you. Funerals of this nature are standard after the death of a significant New Orleans figure, but otherwise, they’re hard to find. 

It all comes down to luck. If you wander the streets of New Orleans, you always could happen upon a jazz funeral. If seeing the second line in action is important to you, head to one of the large churches on the weekends. St. Mary’s Church and St. Louis Cathedral are known for their wedding processions, which have similar second lines. 

What should you wear to a jazz funeral?

Unlike traditional funeral attire, you might be surprised to learn that most people are encouraged to wear casual clothes for a jazz funeral. While the first line is more likely to dress up to pay respect to their loved ones, everyone else can wear street clothes. Either way, it’s considered respectful to dress in black or other neutral colors. 

People use their clothes to express themselves. You’ll see over-the-top hats, full suits, and those infamous colorful umbrellas. The clothes themselves are part of the celebration. 

Can you have a jazz funeral if you’re not from New Orleans?

While jazz funerals are at home in New Orleans, they’re not limited to this part of the world. Many cultures around the globe have their own musical funeral customs, so including jazz in your own funeral is an easy thing to do. 

As for whether you can have a full-blown jazz funeral even if you’re not from New Orleans, the answer is yes. While it’s more common for those who have ties to the Big Easy, it’s all about respect. If you’re willing to hire a band, you can have a jazz funeral of your own no matter where you’re from. 

How much can a jazz funeral cost?

The costs of a jazz funeral, like any funeral costs, will depend on your specific service. The main cost to consider is the cost of hiring a band. If you’re a member of a social aid club, this usually covers the cost. If not, you’ll need to hire a band on your own. 

From there, it’s custom to have a religious service of some kind as well as a formal burial. You could expect to spend anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 on the total cost of the funeral. The specifics will depend on your casket, funeral flowers, reception, and so on. 

Celebrate Life Down in New Orleans

New Orleans sure doesn’t do anything by half. The New Orleans jazz tradition made a mark on the entire world. Today, tourists and locals alike look at these funeral processions with awe and excitement. Stemming from the idea that the soul is worth celebrating, these traditions have survived hundreds of years.

Since the dawn of jazz, people have expressed themselves through upbeat tempos and brassy sound. Whether you’re attending your own New Orleans jazz funeral or you’re planning a visit to the river city, bring your excitement for life. 

Want to learn more about New Orleans and death? Read our guide on the best cemeteries in New Orleans.


Sources

  1. Cooper, Katie. “Jazz Funerals.” Emory Scholar Blog: Anthropological Perspectives on Death. 25 March 2017. Scholarblogs.emory.edu
  2. Whitacre, Caryn. “An Exploration Into the Lived Experience of the Jazz Funeral.” Antioch University Santa Barbara. February 2017. Etd.ohiolink.edu
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