New Orleans: Celebration of Life

New Orleans boasts a large than life culture, expanding into their death rituals. From their location to its people, the Jazz City is certainly one of the most unique places in America. Within their death rituals is influence from several cultures as well as an alternative available from the Judeo-Christian funeral services found throughout the country. The psychological impact of death is also adjusted due to the style of mourning done in New Orleans, but is a clear fit for the people and particular culture.

New Orleans is well known for its mixture of culture and overabundance of music and celebrations. In approaching death, the city in Louisiana uses the same approach they would in any circumstance; they throw a party. Founded in 1718 by French colonists, New Orleans became part of the United States in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. With an influx of slavery, including African and Caribbean nationalities, New Orleans began to boom culturally but had more than its fair share of experiences with death. Since its founding, New Orleans has faced hurricanes and other natural disasters making death a common occurrence. A few years after being settled, a hurricane almost wiped out the colony and since then the grim reaper has made it a regular stomping ground.

In coping with death, the settlers drew upon various needs from the vast cultural riches of the people being brought to New Orleans. Mixing practices from voodoo, which is still practiced there today, as well as from the aristocratic air of the French, New Orleans almost seems like a world apart from the “typical” American city. Since New Orleans is also a major port, it’s allowed for further exchange of culture and goods funneling into the often calmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. With West African, Caribbean and French influences, the death rituals found in New Orleans are as diverse and flavorful and the restaurant district’s famous menus.

Early settlers faced some challenges with burials. With a high water table, the area doesn’t allow for deep burial without filling the hole and causing the casket to actually float. As seen in the Caribbean where there are similar issues, the inhabitants opted for above ground tombstones. Certainly using the influence of the transplanted populous, the streets weren’t flooded with the dead as would have been the case if settlers had used the common burial practices throughout America. These tombstones are often made of stone or concrete, alleviating issues with wooden parasites. The rows of above ground structures mimicked small buildings, with some having ornate decoration. These graveyards are often referred to as “Cities of the Dead” with tours available that point out some of the more notable gravesites (Experience New Orleans, 1999).

Haitians were among the transplanted slaves from the Caribbean placed in New Orleans. Their Voodoo practices found their way into the main culture including the belief that celebrating after death pleases the spirits who protect the dead. For the remainder of the inhabitants- superstitious or not, the celebrations became the social norm and a funeral style quickly emerged which joined several cultures. African slaves also brought their call-and-response style of music and chant along with drums and dancing as part of their funeral rights. Music being such an important part of the region was largely propelled with the jazz movement which became deeply incorporated with the funeral rites as the main catalyst for musical style (Burns, 2001.)

The Jazz Funeral is perhaps one of the most iconic experiences for the city. While death it typically difficult for any culture, these funerals offer a balance between grief and joy as mourners are lead by a marching band. Sorrowful music is played as the group makes their way to the gravesite, allowing people their time to mourn in the way most do in America. Upon burial, an upbeat tempo takes over and cathartic dancing is often included. This celebration of life occurs rather than a solemn procession seen in many American death rituals, making it unsavory to some around the country. Using the eclectic jazz music popularized in the area, a band leader takes a parade of loved ones and attendees through the streets. What some would consider parade attire, the decked out band blasts happy jazz tunes while the travelers make their way from gravesite. The intention is to help the deceased find their way to heaven while celebrating their release from Earthly bonds, which historically included slavery.

In America, this type of funeral was mainly practiced in the deep south by African-Americans, but wasn’t recognized by the Catholic church. This limited the service to black protestants and became the choice among impoverished people and musicians. As the 19th century ended, the movement grew and more people were able to afford the service. With additional social clubs and insurance policies assisting with funeral costs, funerary jazz bands became popularized including the famous Dirty Dozen Brass Band (Funeral Wise, 2018). With horse drawn hearses decorated to the hilt and full parades for pillars in the community, these services remain the cultural norm in New Orleans. Over time, the music has incorporated modern rock and r&b into hymns and gospel with it’s big band jazz flavors. These funerals have gained processions in the thousands and is becoming popular even with those not from the area.

The iconic funeral isn’t limited to any particular race or gender. It’s popularity has resulted in persons from all over the world to have their funerals in New Orleans. Even celebrities not from Louisiana such as Nicolas Cage are opting to be buried in New Orleans to have the full funeral procession (Monteverde, 2017). While space is limited due to size constraints, it appears that those who can afford it are opting for a memorable experience for their loved ones and city dwellers.

Not all of these services are for a single person. In 2006, a large Jazz Funeral was held in memory of the 1,700 persons who lost their life in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. It was held at the Convention Center where a year earlier, those displaced from their homes sought refuge from the natural disaster (Taylor, 2000). By honoring the people and their native culture, this service was supported by the government with the National Guard lending support and being involved in the procession. Among one of the more recent and certainly largest processions in the region, this funeral service broadcast worldwide gave people an opportunity to see and understand the culture better.

As the “most unique city in America” New Orleans uses its rich music and cultural melting pot in their death rituals. From a woeful walk to the site to a boisterous celebration of life, the quintessential Creole death includes these services. It may not be everyone’s particular cup of tea, but for the people of New Orleans, the Jazz Funeral is iconic and will remain as long as the city stands.

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