We could learn a lot from jazz funerals

I was a few weeks into my freshman year of college, leaves turning but snow not yet on the ground, when my father called to tell me that O had died. I grew up with O, running in and out of his various houses, all of which smelled like paint and turpentine and something slightly spicy and rich. I played with his cats and ate his Swedish strawberries and sat in the back of the room kicking the rungs of my chair while he played music with my dad and various sundry characters from around the community. Almost a decade later, I would actually go on to rent one of the first houses he built — I’m sitting in it right this very moment, in fact.

O wasn’t that old, but he was old enough, and when your number’s up, your number’s up. My father called because he thought I might like to know sooner rather than later, though there wasn’t any real question of making it back in time for the funeral, since it had taken place on the very day that he died. O died at home, surrounded by his friends and family, and they laid him out in a coffin he built before he got too sick, and everyone hung out and visited with him for a while, and then, when they were ready, they closed up the coffin, picked it up, and had a parade from his house to the crematorium.

I know there must be pictures somewhere, and I really would like to track them down. People of all ages turned out, my father told me, including most of the jazz club, some of whom marched as they played, while others perched in the back of an old pickup truck — hard to play a standup bass while you’re walking, after all. So the horns wailed and people sang and everyone had a good time walking O to the crematorium, and his closest friends carried his coffin under the portico and loaded it up, pushed the button and waited around while he went up in flames.

It’s the kind of sendoff O definitely would have wanted, but it was still unusual, even for up here, where there are a lot of hippies who do a lot of strange things. Yet, there’s something about his jazz funeral that seemed not just appropriate to him, but appropriate to death in general. We like to hide death and grieving away, to sanitise them, and we expect people to quickly process death and move on, instead of recognising it for the momentous event and life change that it is.

The jazz funeral may be rooted in a very specific cultural tradition, but it also has something in common with traditions like wakes and other types of funeral processions. Rather than hiding from death, we acknowledge that it’s there, and we laugh in its face. People aren’t playing music and laughing and smiling because someone is dead — they’re doing it to honour that person, and to celebrate the fact that they are still alive. Personally, I’ve always wanted people to throw a huge party when I’m dead, to hang out with my body as long as they feel like doing so and then toss me into the back of a pickup and drive me down to the crematorium. That’s my idea of a good time, the thought that I’d be able to bring together all these excellent people in my life one last time, that they’d have an opportunity to share this momentous and complicated thing in common.

Modern death is supposed to be whisper quiet, limited strictly to close family and friends who have a grim, black-clad event followed with some mediocre casseroles, a day off work for vague ‘arrangements’ and then back to it with hardly a stumble. But death is messy. Death can be gross. Death is intense. Death is loud. Death is something incredibly huge and transformational, and I fail to see how hiding in dim rooms behind closed doors allows people to process it. People treat death as something that can be held at arm’s length, something that can be avoided, something that can be ignored.

Death will come for all of us eventually, though. And when it does, the worlds around us slip apart. People are eventually going to repair those slips, to rebuild their worlds, but it’s okay — perhaps even obligatory — to acknowledge those slips. To talk about the huge gulf that is death. To celebrate the life of the person you’re carrying down the street or keeping on ice in the next room. Rather than whisking away a body, we should be giving people time to linger over it, to say their goodbyes, to be thoughtful and meticulous in exploring their relationship with death and the dead.

The jazz funeral is just one way of doing that, and one that appeals to me because of its boisterous nature and opportunity for a whole community to get in on the action, allowing everyone with a connection to the decedent to feel comfortable participating. But it doesn’t have to be the only way to retake the narrative of death, to loose it from its narrow confines and let communities process death in a way that’s healthier and more holistic. I’d much rather see people working it out, making connections, being open, when the alternative is repression, silence, and grief that never really gets processed.

Besides, parties are fun.

Image: Michael P. Smith Jazz Funeral, Derek Bridges, Flickr