Dance It Out

Funerals are for the living; I know that logically. And I know that it doesn’t really matter to the deceased whether his or her body is cremated or buried. I also know, however, that when my sister died and my dad proposed scattering her ashes in a pond on his property in Mississippi, I freaked out. The pond in question is used as a swimming hole for my dad and stepmom’s 17 (as of this writing) dogs. My sister was not a dog person, and she hated going to my dad’s house. I knew rationally that she was beyond caring; I knew emotionally that I could not let her eternal resting place be this muddy hole full of various canine fluids.

After a bit of hysterical crying (mine) and atheist grumbling (his), Dad and I reached a suitable agreement: Half of her ashes were scattered in the same body of water as her mothers’, and the other half were spooned into envelopes for people to do with as they chose. My dad chose to put his spoonful into that pond. I keep mine in my purse, and every so often, when I’m digging for change for the parking meter, my fingers close around that tiny envelope and I think, “Oh. Hi, Ashley.” Other people brought her ashes to Jazz Fest; to Hot Springs, Ark.; to my brother’s grave in North Carolina. I am content with this. This just felt right, on all levels.

So yes, funerals are for the living, but being able to honor the wishes of the dead is also important.

And the second-line we put on for my friend Jim last weekend served both purposes.

The night before the ceremony, my friends and I gathered (interestingly – and fittingly – at Anne Rice’s former home) to cut up handkerchiefs. To make the handkerchiefs, we bought fabric that had patterns that were significant in some way to Jim. We also bought a huge length of unbleached muslin that we cut into squares on which we wrote Jim’s name and private jokes and “We’ll Miss You” and so on. We also drew renderings of his tattoos on some of them. There were a fair amount of the handkerchiefs left over after the second-line, and my mom is going to sew them into keepsakes for Jim’s mom and daughter. This just felt right, on all levels.

The day of the second line, we all gathered at Mimi’s in the Marigny. The Hot 8 Brass Band kicked off with "St. James Infirmary." And as I heard the opening notes, I flung myself into my friend’s arms and sobbed hysterically, and I wasn’t the only one losing it. But then we started walking, following the band and waving handkerchiefs and umbrellas. As we walked, our tears dried. The band started playing celebratory music. People came out on their stoops and cheered us on and yelled supportive things. Right before our final destination, the Country Club on Louisa Street in Bywater (I can’t say enough nice things about Heath and everyone else on staff there), the band stopped and played for a full 15 minutes, and we all danced in the streets, waving our umbrellas and hankies and celebrating Jim.

I danced with my daughter. I danced with my mother. I danced with my high school sweetheart. I danced with my coworker. I danced with Jim’s ex-wife and daughter. I danced with my ex-husband. I danced with my boyfriend. I danced with people covered in tattoos and people wearing seersucker suits and people wearing straw hats. It was a perfect celebration; I feel like grief sometimes needs a physical outlet, too, and this was amazingly therapeutic. There is a show that Ruby loves called Yo Gabba Gabba, and the characters on it frequently “dance their sillies out.” As they dance, little white cartoon squiggles rise from their bodies. I almost felt like that, like I could feel, along with heat and sweat, actual squiggles of grief rising off of my body and leaving me lighter. Funerals offer closure; jazz funerals offer catharsis. And this just felt right, on all levels.

New Orleans gets a lot of things wrong. The idea of a jazz funeral, though, is one thing it got very right.

Categories: Joie d’Eve