Amid the music, food, and fanfare of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a sight some may find surprising: a funeral procession. Fest-goers hold up cameras and iPhones as a brass band leads a procession of mourners holding photos of their beloved departed. The group includes dancers with feather-fans strutting and swaying, hoisting umbrellas and waving handkerchiefs. The uniquely New Orleans jazz funeral has become common at Jazz Fest. Two funerals were held last weekend. "It starts out seeming like it's a sad thing, which it is a sad occasion, but a sad occasion turning into a joyous one," said Oscar Washington, the drummer and bandleader for the New Wave Brass Band, which led the procession last Friday.
Washington, who has led countless jazz funeral processions, said the tradition is an engrained part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans. "It's what we do," he said. "It was always said to be that you cry when you're born into this world, and then it's a joyous occasion when you leave out." Traditional jazz funerals start slow and solemn with a dirge, usually "A Closer Walk With Thee," and then build to a celebratory street party honoring the departed. Observers of the parade fall in behind the procession, forming a traditional "second line" of marchers. "People will start doing the traditional second-line, with the stepping across and over, jumping in the air," Washington said. "That says here another soldier has gone on home, let's celebrate." (Read more New Orleans Jazz Festival stories.)