Mourning the absence of the jazz funeral

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NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – In thinking about the recent loss of music educator Ellis Marsalis, a mixture of fond memories, as well as melancholy, comes over most of us, but perhaps the most glaring conundrum is in thinking about how much he deserved a second line funeral and wouldn’t receive one. Every beautiful New Orleans inhabitant receives a special goodbye. Normally, you can hear the farewell moving down the streets on any given day. It’s a reminder of that the party never stops from one life to the next. Social distancing is not the problem, it’s the necessity. Instead, the way we say goodbye in New Orleans is yet another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic.

Funeral Director Jasmine Navarre describes what jazz funerals are like in the best of times, saying, “When people put all of their effort into planning a funeral, they really are operating in the space of a last hurrah, giving the opportunity that any and everything goes. It is continuing to celebrate the good times that were here in life.”

For 135 years, The Rhodes Funeral Home has been a tradition in New Orleans. Recently, they were part of a committee along with the mayor, Homeland Security, coroners offices, the Department of Health and Hospitals, and faith-based organizations along with other entities to help establish safe ways of continue funeral service. The guidelines can be viewed here. “With the COVID 19 situation, we are in a reduction where we can only have ten people present at the funeral and it makes choosing those ten family members very important. We are doing the majority of our arrangements electronically and online. We have seen an increase by about 25 percent, in families electing for cremation instead of burial. However cremation is not mandated”

To witness a virtual funeral can seem unnatural. The attendees wear masks and consoling one another with physical contact like a hug is kept at a minimal. Navarre believes in order to keep our home-going services effective, “we do have to work a bit harder, to make sure our eyes show love when we are covered with a mask. We also have to make sure that everybody that is present feels the embrace… even at a distance.”

Some funeral homes are experiencing additional hardship as they are filled to capacity. However, as we know well in New Orleans, hard times do not last forever. Rhodes has seen something very unique in terms of people planning funerals: “Families are taking advantage of the opportunity to plan a memorial celebration at a later date, after the pandemic. They’ll still have the opportunity for friends and family to second line, dance and and enjoy all the things we’ve done in the past. The New Orleans spirit will live on.”

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