The jazz funeral tradition grew to become New Orleans’ most honored of funeral ceremonies, with horse-drawn hearses and parades, well-known musicians and other pillars of the community. Although the upbeat music and dancing has, historically, flown in the face of prevailing sentiments about the required solemnity of the traditional memorial service, the New Orleans jazz funeral grew throughout the 20th century to achieve its own respected standing among the many ways to commemorate the passage of a loved one.
The music and dancing of the jazz funeral were intended to both help the deceased find their way to heaven and to celebrate the final release from the hardship and bounds of earthly life. The call-and-response style of music and chant, coupled with tambourines, drums and dancing were elements of African funeral ceremonies which crossed the seas with the captive slaves. In American culture, this type of funeral caught on especially among the African- American population.
Historically, the New Orleans jazz funeral could last up to a week and sometimes even included a parade. A typical funeral began with a slow march from the home of the deceased to the church or designated memorial service site. During the march, the coffin may have been carried by a horse-drawn hearse and was accompanied by a brass band playing somber dirges and hymns. After the memorial service, the march would proceed to the cemetery and the tone would remain somber until the coffin had been placed in the ground or until the group was out of sight of the church. People on the streets where the march passed were welcome to join in and go along with the mourners to the cemetery. The brass band would then launch into upbeat dance music with tambourines and drums. The music and dancing were both a cathartic release for mourners and a celebration of a life well lived. In this state of jubilation, the group would then march back to the location of their reception.
A symbol of life, a symbol of death and a symbol of re-birth, the New Orleans jazz funeral salutes a life well lived and the passage of a departed soul into a better world.