The New Orleans funeral reminds us that grief is a burden that may be shared

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Each a part of a ritual funeral procession in New Orleans is sacred.

Stafford Agee says it simply feels totally different when he performs one in his hometown. As a musician, his duty is to honor the lifetime of the deceased and provides the household slightly extra pleasure within the transition. “I by no means appreciated contemplating a funeral being a gig,” he says. “I’m performing for any individual’s homegoing ceremony.”

When Agee, a member of the famed Rebirth Brass Band, lifts his trombone, he forges a connection between his metropolis’s musical traditions, those that got here earlier than him, and this ritual of remembrance and celebration. In these moments, the car-lined streets and the homes that line the route are remodeled into the partitions of a church; it’s non secular. There’s an inescapable solemnity, sure, but additionally a lot laughter.

Stafford Agee, trombone participant with the Rebirth Brass Band, at his residence in New Orleans in 2020.
Annie Flanagan for The Washington Put up by way of Getty Photos

For Black New Orleans, these funeral second strains, typically referred to as jazz funerals by observers, have existed for generations. In its easiest kind, the second line is a parade, a mass of celebrants and mourners that weave their means by the streets. For the town’s Black culture-bearers who make it their life’s work to uplift and keep the traditions of their ancestors, the funeral second line is rather more. It’s one among many sacred cultural rites that originated within the crucible of the American slave commerce and are maintained to this present day. The time period second line refers back to the crowd of group members and mourners who comply with the primary line of the parade — the casket, household, and musicians. In New Orleans, that first line contains percussion alongside a brass band, with trumpeters, tubists, and trombonists like Agee.

Funeral second strains are group occasions, with typically lots of of individuals becoming a member of the procession. “I come from the period while you’re in your home and also you hear music and also you go ‘Second line!’ and also you run outdoors,” says Ausettua Amor Amenkum, Large Queen of the Washita Nation, and a creative director of Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective and adjunct professor of dance at Tulane College. For her, the dancing typical in a second line permits every particular person to be uniquely expressive but additionally invitations them right into a refrain of our bodies, the place one collective motion turns into part of a mourning follow.

This month, for instance, household and followers took to the streets to have fun the lifetime of pioneering bounce rapper “Josephine Johnny” Watson, who died in late December at 45. Town, too, has held second strains for Prince, and even Betty White, after their deaths. In New Orleans, grief doesn’t exist with out laughter, with out dancing, with out the motion of our bodies, the crush of crowds, and the reminder that dying, irrespective of how somber, is part of life.

Breanca Simpson, proper, dances with Rodrick Davis Sr. as a part of the second line procession for Breanca’s cousin, “Josephine Johnny” Watson.

Toes glide and bounce to the sounds of the brass bands. The funeral second line is exclusive to New Orleans; it’s a practice that has roots stretching again to the 1800s and even additional again, to the beginnings of the slave commerce, relying on who you ask.

In a rustic determined for precisely that type of collective mourning, New Orleans’ second line funeral rituals, with their communal nature and celebratory underpinnings, may function a much-needed supply of inspiration and catharsis.

The previous two years have confirmed how ill-equipped the US cultural framework is to cope with persistent grief, the type that rises up when lots of of 1000’s of People die, abruptly and inside months of one another. It stays nearly not possible to totally grasp the truth of these deaths, as politics and overtaxed methods obscure an correct rely of these misplaced. In some ways, too, Covid-19 has exacerbated our nation’s inarticulateness round grief. So many People have needed to bear theirs alone, and that isolation has led to the sensation that their ache and disappointment is singular and maybe, insurmountable.

The funeral second line intrinsically faucets the facility of the collective, reminding mourners that grief is a burden that may be shared.

The “In America: Bear in mind” public artwork set up positioned greater than 640,000 white flags over 20 acres of the Nationwide Mall in Washington for 2 weeks in fall 2021.
Anadolu Company by way of Getty Photos

There was little or no in the best way of nationwide mourning occasions. Even Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s In America: Bear in mind set up on the Mall honored those that died of Covid-19 however didn’t provide the group or catharsis of funerary rituals. Efforts at federal laws for bereavement go away have languished, and states have adopted such insurance policies at a tempo nicely behind comparable international locations throughout the globe. Over the previous yr alone, suicidality in teenage ladies, tic-like issues in adolescents, and substance abuse in adults have been all on the rise. Unattended grief has actual penalties, in our our bodies and in our communities.

Enter the African, Caribbean, and Indigenous cultures, whose fingers are wrapped round New Orleans’s understanding of life and all its cycles. Enter the second line, with its lungs, its breath, and its room for anybody wanting a spot to grieve their losses, irrespective of how amorphous or distant.

Youngsters dance and lead the procession for “Josephine Johnny” Watson, held in mid-January in New Orleans. The second line funeral rituals invite mourners to hitch a refrain of our bodies, in celebration in addition to in grief.


Some historians place the origins of the New Orleans second line within the early 1800s, together with the creation of Black-led mutual support societies. Nonetheless, cultural leaders and historians akin to Ibrahima Seck, director of analysis on the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, hint them again additional, to the West African coast by the use of the transatlantic slave commerce. Seck notes that due to oral historical past traditions and legal guidelines that codified illiteracy for enslaved Africans, it’s arduous to seek out proof of second strains earlier than emancipation. Nonetheless, the dirge, the dancing, and the pageantry of Black New Orleans’s funeral processions have direct hyperlinks to the funerary practices of Senegal, Gambia, and different West African international locations.

All through the pandemic, these communal moments of music, dance, and witness-bearing suffered.

From the virus’s arrival, Black New Orleanians bore the brunt of Covid-19’s brutal onslaught. By April 2020, Black folks made up a disproportionate 70 p.c of reported Covid-19 deaths in Louisiana. Black cultural figures, historians, and musicians perished early on; the deaths of “tradition bearer” Ronald W. Lewis, Zulu king Larry Hammond, enterprise proprietor Leona Grandison, and jazz musician Ellis Marsalis put faces to the indifferent language of “weak populations.”

Giant gatherings have been prohibited, second strains halted, and fines issued as the town’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, tried to gradual the virus’ unfold. With out an outlet to adequately mourn these towering figures or the lack of cultural information, loss reverberated by the group. But the town’s residents struggled to repress a grief follow so integral to the material of the group, even because the rising variety of Covid-19 deaths necessitated a pause. (The follow of funeral second strains formally resumed after a year-long ban, however to this present day, Marsalis, a cultural titan in New Orleans, has not been honored with a second line, nor have many Black New Orleanians who died within the early days of the pandemic.)

Residents maintain a second line procession to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on this picture from August 2006. The occasion served as a strategy to keep in mind the victims and survivors of the lethal storm.
Chris Graythen/Getty Photos

Layers of grief exist in Black cultural traditions just like the second line, says Damia Khanboubi, director of group collaboration at Junebug Productions, a theater firm in New Orleans. For the enslaved and previously enslaved, these traditions mirror the compounded lack of homeland, dignity, and company below the brutal system of slavery. For contemporary Black New Orleanians, they mirror the truth of dying alongside the systemic inequities that make them extra weak to violence, housing insecurity, and inequitable well being care. Second strains stand as a reminder of tradition, Khanboubi says, however now that they’ve resumed, additionally they function an exclamation level on political and systemic hurt.

The grief traditions of Black New Orleans are intricate and intentional — and distinctly New Orleans, nonetheless. “You realize, there’s a well-known quote by a musician that tradition simply bubbles up from the road,” says Cherice Harrison-Nelson, co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Corridor of Fame and a frontrunner of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, recalling a quote lengthy attributed to Marsalis. “That’s not true. As a result of cultural traditions don’t bubble up from the road like Jack and the Beanstalk…We go into our communities and we resolve that we’re going to do one thing, a cultural expression that comes from our deep locations to share in our group.” For Harrison-Nelson, “Tradition is a language, cultural expression is a language. [My mother] mentioned that folks grieve of their mom tongue. The tradition is our mom tongue.”

Whereas a second line might not be a common language, it does present a template for the way to normalize and ritualize collective grieving. In August 2021, artist Sonya Clark created her Beaded Prayers Mission, to honor the residents of Detroit who died on account of Covid-19. Clark’s undertaking is now displayed as an artwork set up, however included a second of collective ritual. Detroit residents sat collectively and crafted their prayer pouches, sharing tales about their family members, and creating mementos of the lives misplaced. Final yr, at memorials throughout the nation for Breonna Taylor, the Black EMT killed by police, when the speeches had ended, mourners and protestors belted out her favourite track, Mary J. Blige’s “All the pieces.”

An everyday celebration of this sort in communities throughout the nation may function a reminder that whereas grief is persistent and can’t be diminished, it may be carried collectively. Communal grieving, funeral processions, collective altars and paintings enable us the time wanted to pause and honor each the disappointment and the sunshine. Altering our nationwide orientation towards collective grieving means constructing traditions that enable us to really feel the complete vary of our feelings and to additionally honor the fullness of the lives we’ve misplaced — each the folks we love and the folks we are going to by no means get an opportunity to satisfy.


Younger Fellaz Brass Band performs on the funeral procession for “Josephine Johnny” Watson. Musicians are a part of the “first line” of such a procession. Mourners and well-wishers make up the second.

A funeral procession all the time begins with a dirge, say, a gradual mournful model of the gospel hymn “Only a Nearer Stroll with Thee.” When requested which hymns he prefers to play for these dirges, Agee demurs. For him, it’s much less about what he likes and extra about what sort of music will contact the hearts of the household and assist ease the ache of the mourners.

Agee can’t keep in mind his first funeral second line. Nonetheless, he does recall the older musicians who taught him the way it was achieved, in what order the ritual was carried out, and the pacing. A dirge leads the grieving household and group members out of a funeral service and into the open air; Agee likens it to the closing credit of a film. “When credit begin rolling, the music adjustments…the film adjustments, all the things adjustments. Now, I’m gonna have fun this second.”

The procession makes its strategy to the principle road. And that’s the place the physique is “reduce unfastened,” because the musicians kind a tunnel by which the physique passes on its strategy to the cemetery and on to the following life, maybe. The dirge ends, and, because the physique and the household go on to the burial floor, the tempo and tenor of the processional dramatically change. And so, because the casket proceeds to its remaining resting place, the air turns into full with the fluttering of handkerchiefs — typically emblazoned with the title or picture of the beloved one misplaced — raised excessive. Umbrellas are held aloft as their bearers sway, transfer, and lean. Then begins the buckjumping, the our bodies gliding over pavement, fences, porches, and typically even vehicles. Voices raise collectively, encouraging, laughing, teasing.

Tamica McGee, 14, dances on a truck that was making an attempt to move throughout a second line for her uncle, “Josephine Johnny” Watson, throughout a second line this month.

A dirge leads the grieving household and group members out of a funeral service and into the open air. It’s adopted by a shift in tempo — and a shift to a celebratory spirit.

At its coronary heart, a second line is all about touching: the reminiscence of the one who is gone, the lineage of people that have gone earlier than them, and the folks round you who additionally stay behind.

Amenkum is evident: “Whatever the labels that we placed on ourselves—Black, African, Seventh Ward, white, [transplant], carpetbagger, no matter you say— on the finish of the day, we’re born, and we die. So coming collectively to acknowledge that —that rites of passage to the following realm— is actual. The funerary rites that New Orleans tradition ushers in, permits for us to establish and affiliate with that commonality that we’ve got.”

Nicole Younger is a author whose non-fiction work has appeared in ZORA and Bitch journal; she lived in New Orleans till 2020.





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