New Orleans Louisiana is famous for its music, food, and voodoo, among other things, so it comes as no surprise that within the rich tapestry of New Orleans culture and history, there exists an equally rich funeral procession. The jazz funeral incorporates New Orleans’ unique history of music with the city’s long-standing superstition of the dead, as well as the type of flair that only The Big Easy can manage.
Unlike your typical service, the jazz funeral has an entire brass band waiting quietly outside for the church service to end and the coffin to be brought to the hearse. The band will typically play a number of slow funeral dirges as they follow the hearse through town to the site of the burial, grieving crowd following the brass band. Upon leaving the cemetery, however, the band traditionally begins to play more upbeat tunes as those present begin to sing, dance, wave around scarves, etc. The band then takes to the streets of New Orleans again, this time the crowd celebrates the life of the deceased and his or her moving on to a better place.
This tradition has roots in New Orleans’ rich and complex superstitious beliefs. Believed to stem from the eighteenth century outbreak of Yellow Fever, the jazz funeral is an evolution of the much older tradition of “confusing the spirits.” After a funeral, the crowd in attendance would follow the hearse on a random and complicated path through the city, playing noisemakers as they went. It was believed that, between the noisemakers and the random path through the city streets, that should the dead’s spirit rise from the grave, it wouldn’t be able to find its way home again to cause trouble for the living.
If you happen to be in New Orleans when a jazz funeral passes by, feel free to join in! It is not only permissible for by-standers and strangers to join in on the celebratory dancing, but expected, as you are still alive and that’s cause enough for celebration.