Our blogging staff seems to have had a lot of blogs about death recently (which can be read here, here and here), but they have all celebrated the lives of extraordinary people—and dogs. The blog post you are about to read follows the same theme, but I promise it's uplifting. As an out-of-towner, one thing I would like to point out is what happens after somebody dies in New Orleans is yet another thing that sets the city apart from the rest of the country.
One of the hardest things about living far from home is when somebody dies. I lost a friend last week. Her name was Irene Haskins and she was 84. You might find it odd that a twenty-something was friends with an 84-year-old, but Irene was no ordinary senior citizen. I met her when I was an intern at the Columbia Daily Tribune, a daily newspaper in Columbia, Mo., my hometown.
Irene was a columnist at the paper, but she was more than that. She was a presence. Her cubicle was next to mine and she tended to say things out loud that most people would keep to themselves. “Why do I keep getting all these penis enlargement emails?” she said once. I thought she was asking me. How does someone answer that? I learned later on that Irene was just funny and her presence in the newsroom brought smiles to everyone. A few of her colleagues even created a Twitter account, @Shit_Irene_Says, to chronicle her one-liners.
But Irene wasn’t just a fixture in the newsroom, she was a fixture in Columbia. She was a special lady who won awards for her humor column, “Smile Awhile,” and in a world where the future looks bleak for local newspapers, Irene was one of the very reasons they existed. She would write about her own adventures and the stories of local people that Columbians couldn’t find anywhere else.
So when news spread that she passed away after a fall in her home led to cerebral hemorrhage, many of Columbia’s residents were devastated. “The world shifted on its axis Thursday night,” one Tribune columnist wrote after Irene’s death. Tributes to Irene floated across social media in the days that followed, and the newspaper dedicated a part of the Sunday edition to her. Her funeral service was held in Jesse Auditorium, a theater that seats 1,732 on the University of Missouri campus. Irene would have been quite impressed by all of the attention. She always joked that she was a local celebrity, but it was true. She was a small town legend and she will be missed.
So Columbia's reaction to Irene's death is what led me to think about how New Orleanians honor those who pass away. I first started pondering this in July when I received a call from my significant other, Chris. He moved to New Orleans a month before I did, so we would often talk on the phone at night to catch up. “Oh, I might not be able to talk tonight,” he told me one day. “I'm going to a funeral.”
“You're what?” I asked. Chris barely knew anyone in New Orleans, so I didn't understand why he would be attending funerals already.
“Yeah, this big jazz guy died, and the whole city is having a party,” he replied. “That's how they do things here.”
I later learned that the "big jazz guy" was Uncle Lionel Batiste, a New Orleans jazz legend. The city was sad to see Lionel pass away, but New Orleans gave him a proper good bye with a jazz funeral at the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts. Batiste was celebrated and remembered in a way that made sense for such a big name in the world of jazz. For New Orleans, this was nothing new. The jazz funeral dates back to the 1800s, according to NewOrleansOnline.com. While the idea originated in Africa, it has become a part of New Orleans culture.
The fact that the concept of the jazz funeral even exists is yet another thing that sets New Orleans apart from the rest of the U.S. You won't see musicians playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" near a cemetery in the middle of Missouri. All of the funerals I’ve attended have been sad, as losing a loved one always is, but when I think about how much Irene would have loved a musical parade in her honor, the idea of a jazz funeral makes sense. While I have yet to attend a jazz funeral, I love the idea of celebrating someone’s life with upbeat music and a good time.
The funeral service for Irene included music, since she was a singer herself and she often performed in Columbia before she died. For spirits like Irene and Uncle Lionel Batiste, their lives can only be celebrated after accomplishing so much and bringing joy to their cities. I imagine Uncle Lionel Batiste is playing music up in Heaven and Irene is singing along.