Jazz Funeral for the Old Year

Melanie Morel-Ensminger

Introduction to a New Orleans Jazz Funeral

Welcome to a new tradition for our church—a New Orleans-style jazz funeral for the old year. This service offers opportunities for reflection on the past year, a chance to “bury” whatever that was negative or hurtful to us in 20xx, and looks forward with both hope and joy to this new year of 20xx now before us. I hope that you will find this unusual ritual based in my cultural heritage educational, inspirational, and fun.

The tradition of the New Orleans jazz funeral began its development in the late 19th century, combining European and uniquely American musical elements with a distinctly African sensibility. It can be safely said that the custom could have arisen no where else in America, or in the world, for that matter, for nowhere else but here was there quite the blending and fusing of a gumbo of cultures that gave birth not only to the jazz funeral, but to jazz itself—as well as to blues, Cajun and zydeco, rhythm and blues, and even rock’n’roll.

Although in present-day New Orleans almost anyone can be honored with a jazz funeral, originally it was strictly for the black Creoles. (As many of you know, in New Orleans, the term “Creole” refers to someone whose heritage is from France and/or Spain, but who was born in Louisiana. There are both white and black Creoles, many of whose families are interrelated. I am white Creole on my father’s side, and my sister Dede married into a black Creole family.) In the 1880s and ‘90s, insurance and burial societies sprang up among the recently-freed people of color, with easy payment plans that allowed even the poorest family to afford a “proper” burial for its members, complete with a band of musicians to give the beloved dead a good send-off on the way to and back from burial in one of the city’s above-ground cemeteries.

Many older jazz musicians in the city, with their years of experience from childhood in the marching brass bands that seem to dot every working class neighborhood of New Orleans, vividly recall their first jazz funeral. A member of the Baptiste black Creole musical dynasty

When I was a little boy, I would see a band, all dressed in black, coming slowly down the street, playing sorrowful music. And then, I’d see them later, coming back, playing happy tunes. And I’d wonder what happened in the middle. [Milton Baptiste]

Our service this morning roughly follows the general outline of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, which always started with a wake, moved on to the funeral, then burial, and ended with the “cutting the body loose” ritual and secondline. We begin this morning with a wake for the old year, which will be followed by a ritual of burying and dismissing the past, and then we’ll end with a “cutting loose” celebration of life and joy and hope for the future. We intend this service to be a rousing start for the year <new year>. Let us join in worship together. 

Our chalice will now be lit.

Chalice Lighting by Family/Words by Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong summarized his philosophy of life in the spoken introduction to his 1970 recording of “It’s a Wonderful World” –

“And all I’m saying is, see what a wonderful world it would be if only we would give it a chance. Love, baby, love. That’s the secret. Yeah.”

Hymn: “Down By The Riverside” #16

Wake of the Old Year

In New Orleans, back in the day, on the night before a funeral was scheduled, a wake would be held, where folks sat up all night long with the deceased and sang familiar hymns. My father used to tell of wakes that were held in people’s homes, with the dearly departed laid out on the dining room table, or on a door taken off its hinges, laid on 2 trestles, but as the 20th century wore on, increasingly such vigils were held in professional funeral parlors or in churches. (Funeral director is a long-honored profession among black Creoles in New Orleans.) Traditional gospel hymns were sung, such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (which we heard as our Prelude this morning), “Down by the Riverside” (which we just shared), “As I Lay My Burden Down,” and “Just a Little While to Stay Here” (which we’re about to hear).

During the wake, friends and family would sit up all night with the coffin, not only singing, but remembering and sharing stories together. Sharing stories is healing and helps us deal with grief, which is why it is so often a part of our Unitarian Universalist memorial services. In recalling and sharing stories, the burden of grief and memory is laid down, becoming not solely an individual problem but something dealt with in community. Keeping pain inside is isolating; sharing pain is both liberating and healing.

As you listen to “Just a Little While to Stay Here,” think about what burden from the past that you wish to lay down. Following the hymn, there will be a Prayer and a Meditation on the Old Year, leading to our ritual of burying the past.

Wake of the Year: “Just a Little While to Stay Here”

Pastoral Prayer

Let us draw our hearts and minds together in a spirit of quiet and prayerful meditation and reflection, breathing deeply, relaxing our bodies, releasing from our minds and hearts all the mundane matters of the week just past, and refusing if only for this brief time together ot shoulder the burdens of the week to come. Let us be together, breathe together, and draw strength and comfort and challenge from this gathered community of liberal faith.

Let us remember that in spite of all of life’s challenges, we are not alone, but part of a supportive and affirming community, where we can celebrate together in life’s good times, mourn together life’s losses, and care for one another in life’s difficult moments.

Even as we release mundane concerns from our minds—the bills unpaid, the errands uncompleted, the endless to do list -- let us instead focus our hearts and minds outside ourselves on those among us in our church, in our community, and in our world who need our attention:

[Name those in the church needing our attention and care, or who have joys to celebrate.]

Meditation on the Old Year

Every year’s ending brings with it the bittersweet task of remembering and evaluating the events of the past year. Every year has its moments of pain, its losses, its attendant evils. The past year brought changes both good and bad to our world, our church, our personal lives; for each one of us, this year there have been losses, pain, missed opportunities, accidents of nature, triumphs and tragedies.

We all need to process and move through these changes, wounds, and losses, in order to incorporate them into our lives in a healthy way, to begin again anew in the new year with new hearts. We all need to fully grieve our pain and our losses, in order to be ready to face the unknown future. There is no shortcut through grief and pain; the only only way through sadness is through the sadness -- anything else is a false mask of denial and repression. The best way we know of as human beings to do this difficult work is in religious community.

So we begin this morning with an assessment of the past. What events of the past year do you regret? What words or deeds, your own personally or collectively as a citizen or as a member of particular group, do you wish to banish? What feelings do you wish to bury? What happened to you individually or to us communally that you wish to deal with and lay to rest?

Our lives are brief, we have only a little while to stay here; we should not carry emotional pain forever. What burdens are you willing to lay down?

We will take some minutes of silence to review the year, and to list our burdens on the small pieces of paper found in your Orders of Service. (If you need a piece of paper, or a writing implement, please raise your hand, and the ushers will bring them to you.) Then, as the band plays the traditional “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” you are invited to come forward, and place your burden to be buried in the open casket. Our children are welcome to participate.

Ritual of Burying the Past/“Just a Closer Walk With Thee”

[When everyone present has had a chance to come forward:] After the wake was over, usually the next morning, the funeral itself would be held. The body would be reverently and tenderly laid in a coffin, and the coffin would be removed from the home or the funeral parlor, and carried slowly, with great dignity, through the streets of the city to the church. In the old days, the hearse was horse-drawn, the horses plumed in black, their hooves muffled with black cloth, the attendants dressed in dark tail coats; nowadays, the hearse is usually a long motor car and the attendants wear plain and sober business suits. The brass band follows behind in slow lock step, playing mournful dirges, with the family and friends behind them, all moving slowly and sadly, doing what in New Orleans is called “the slow drag” in time with the music. (The people following the band are called the “second line” because the band is the first line.)

The funeral would follow a traditional pattern: the dead would be eulogized, hymns sung, hopes for a reunion in a better world would be expressed. One old hymn out of the black gospel heritage, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” is enshrined in our hymnal, but not often sung in UU churches. It was a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it was played at his funeral. The hymn’s writer, Thomas Dorsey, was famous in his day as a secular blues musician; he was often on the road, playing honky-tonks and juke joints, living the life of a rascal. On one such trip, he got word that his wife had died in childbirth, and the baby had died too. Dorsey wanted to die himself, and penned this hymn. It is a song for anyone who has known despair and sadness, but who finds hope in their religious faith.

Hymn: “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” #199

Burying the Past

After the funeral service in the church, the coffin would be carried through the streets to the neighborhood cemetery for burial, for it was the custom in those days for people to be buried near where they had lived. Even today, in the old neighborhoods, it is not unusual for small cemeteries to be scattered throughout residential areas, some of them now considered historic, but still used for burials.

Once more, the band would gather behind the hearse and once more, the immediate family and closest friends would follow, and grieving and slow, they would make their way to the burial ground.

Much as we would like to, we cannot literally bury this casket, containing all our burdens from the past year. Instead, let us imagine now that we are slowly following behind this casket as it makes its way to the cemetery to be buried. Inside of it are all the aspects of our individual and communal lives that we have collected, that we now wish to bury, to dismiss and leave behind us. Let us imagine ourselves to be the mourners of the past year, walking through the streets of the city, ready to bury the past.


When we remember all that is in the casket, the people we love who have died, the missed opportunities, the mistakes and missteps we have made, the sad events we have lived through, the traumas we have survived, even the outright evil we have overcome and hope to leave behind, we are grieved, we are sad, we may even be angry -- but we also feel a glimmer of hope that we can overcome the burdens and obstacles that life places before us, we can find the strength and courage to go on. We recall to memory the heroes and heroines of the past year, and all those who have gone before us, our ancestors, those related to us by blood and those we have chosen for ourselves, whose shining examples show us the way. They shouldered burdens heavier than ours; they faced challenges we can only imagine, they endured hardships beyond what we now know. They prevailed, and passed to us a legacy of courage and hope, examples of human life well-lived. We remember them, and we resolve to honor them by living lives that might serve as a model to those who will come after us.

Hymn: “Lift Ev’ry Voice” #149

Meditation on Our Hopes for the New Year

When the funeral procession arrived at the gates of the cemetery, or, nowadays, when the hearse leaves to take the coffin to a distant suburban graveyard, then it is time for the ritual known in New Orleans as “cutting the body loose.” As the coffin is lowered into the grave or burial vault, the grand marshall of the brass band lifts his baton and gives the signal that the body has been dismissed. The band switches tempo. Slow dirges become hot swinging dance numbers. What was slow and sad becomes happy and bright. The second line of mourners and well-wishers, who up to this point have been marching in the funeral beat known as the slow drag, break out into clapping and dancing and singing along.

As they leave the cemetery, the band plays such songs as “Feel So Good,” “Be Glad When You’re Dead (You Rascal You),” “Didn’t He Ramble,” and of course “The Saints.”

This gaiety and celebration is not a lack of respect for the dead, or a denial of loss and pain. In the African culture’s acceptance of the fullness of life -- that life was full of sorrow AND joy, pain AND pleasure, was an implicit acknowledgement that both were necessary, two parts of one whole. The dead are dead, and however much we grieve them, we cannot bring them back -- but we, we are alive, and in that life lies joy and pleasure and hope for a better future.

This is a deep wisdom that New orleanians have always known.

We too grieve the past and yet move forward with hope and joy. There is much to be thankful for, this community of faith not least among them. We have each other, we have this church complex, so full of potential, we have the bounty of our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition which always calls us forward. We have our culture and traditions, our food and music and celebrations that no one can take from us. We are here because of the love and commitment and gifts of those of the past. Together we have buried and dismissed the burdens of the past, and we have celebrated hope and courage in song and prayer. Now let us contemplate the future that lies before us, the future that is still ours to shape, as we listen to the music of a joyous send-off, “Walking with the King.” In faith and hope and joy, we will now take up the offering for the life and work and future of this beloved community of liberal faith.

Offertory/“Walking with the King”

Benediction and Invitation to the Second Line

In this service, we have shared together our sense of pain and loss and grief, our fears and our dreads, our hopes and our joys, as diverse people of one community of liberal faith. We have walked through our pain, dismissing the past, laying down our burdens of grief and shame and guilt. We have sung of courage, and have lifted our hearts in hope to see our way into the future, whose outlines we can but dimly see, but whose shape is in our hands.

In the great tradition of the New Orleans jazz funeral, let us now join in a joyous second line of gladness behind the band as they parade around the sanctuary, to “The Saints.” Everyone who can is encouraged to join in behind the members of the band, and to sing along. In the words of African-American religious liberal, Howard Thurman, “Long live Life!”

“The Saints” & Second Line by Congregation

Suggested Tunes for Jazz Funeral:
(in the order they appear in the service)

Prelude—“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” or “I’ll Fly Away” or medley of gospel tunes

Congregational Hymn—“Down by the Riverside” #162 in UU Hymnal (this could be handled by the church accompanist, or the congregation could sing along with the brass band)

Wake for Old Year—“As I Lay My Burden Down” or “Walk Through the Streets of the City” or “Just a Little While to Stay Here” or another appropriate, sad old gospel tune

Dirge for the Old Year—“Just a Closer Walk” (slow funeral tempo) or any other appropriate, sad old gospel tune

Congregational Funeral Hymn—“Precious Lord” #199 in UU hymnal & “Lift Ev’ry Voice” #149 in UU Hymnal (this could be handled by the church accompanist, or the congregation could sing along with the brass band)

Offertory—“Walking with the King” or any tune mentioned above not already used

Happy Music for Meditation—“Didn’t He Ramble” or “Feel So Good” or “Be Glad When You’re Dead”

Send-Off & Second Line around the church—“The Saints” (of course!)