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New Orleans Jazz Funeral Traditions

Mary Gormandy White
Grand Marshall of Brass Band

New Orleans is a unique place, with a rich culture and heritage unlike those of any other city on earth. Known as "the birthplace of jazz," New Orleans is a place where jazz permeates every aspect of culture. It plays an important role in every aspect of life, including how locals honor and celebrate the lives of the departed. Jazz - and jazz funeral processions - have been treasured New Orleans traditions since the late 19th Century.

Traditional New Orleans Jazz Funeral Procession

While not every funeral held in New Orleans includes a jazz band procession, this type of funeral is often part of the public celebration of life for departed public figures, high profile individuals, and others who opt to include this type of procession in funeral ceremonies honoring their loved ones. Traditional jazz funerals start at a funeral home, church, or other location where a wake, or other formal memorial service, is held. Like most services, this tends to be a somber occasion attended by family, friends, and close colleagues. The jazz funeral procession begins immediately following this service.

  • As mourners exit the wake, they are greeted by a brass band playing music typically associated with mourning (referred to as dirges).
  • The band leads the way for the hearse or mule-drawn carriage carrying the coffin, starting a procession to the burial place.
  • The mourners who attended the service follow, walking behind the vehicle that carries the deceased.
  • Often, particularly in the case of a beloved musician or other community icon, people who don't attend the service are waiting outside to join in the procession.
  • Upon arrival at the final destination, a brief burial service is held per the religious traditions and wishes of the deceased individual or their family.
  • Once the coffin has been placed in the tomb (referred to as cutting the body loose), the tone changes from one of mourning to one of joy.
  • The band begins playing joyful jazz music at this point, symbolizing that the deceased person has to a better place free from suffering and worldly concerns.
  • The mood shifts from somber to celebratory. Just as the body has been "cut loose," the mourners do the same, though music, marching, and dancing.
  • The band continues playing, leading the attendees as they march and dance their way out of the cemetery, forming a parade.
  • Passers-by - whether they knew the deceased or not - are welcome to join in behind the procession, forming what is known as a second line.
  • The procession may go back to the point where it started, or to an alternate location where a reception or gathering will be held.

Alternate Jazz Funeral March Celebrations

While traditional jazz funeral processions involve burials and religious services, that is not always the case. For example, those who opt to be cremated can still have a jazz funeral procession, with the cremains transported via hearse or mule-drawn carriage. The French Quarter and Treme are popular locations for such funeral marches. In some cases, jazz funerals begin from a location that played an important role in the life of the deceased individual, such as a business owned by the deceased or a theatre where he or she performed, rather than a church or funeral home.

Popular Songs for New Orleans Jazz Funerals

Music played during jazz funerals includes a combination of spiritual dirges and up-tempo jazz tunes. Examples of songs often played in jazz funeral processions include:

  • A Closer Walk With Thee
  • Battle Hymn of the Republic
  • Down By the Riverside
  • Lead Me Savoir
  • In the Sweet Bye and Bye
  • Walk Through the Streets of the City
  • What a Friend We Have in Jesus
  • When the Saints Go Marching In

Celebrating Life in The City of New Orleans

While the majority of funerals in New Orleans don't include a jazz procession, these unique celebrations of life are a key element of the city's culture. What better way to celebrate the lives of the many jazz legends and prominent citizens who lived their lives in - and made a lasting impact on - the Crescent City? If you have an opportunity to witness a New Orleans jazz funeral, consider yourself lucky to experience this unique approach to celebrating a life well-lived.

New Orleans Jazz Funeral Traditions