This is one of the absolutely necessary stages we all have to go through, as individuals, as communities, as a nation. If America is ever to achieve any degree of healing, we will all have to face an immense backlog of unresolved grief. But there is a great opportunity before us: the revival on American soil of indigenous mourning rituals. As I have written previously (“Rituals of Grief”), the traditional Jazz funerals of New Orleans provide us with a profoundly meaningful example of public, communal mourning and the closure that can result:
The traditional funeral parade has two sections. The “first line” consists of the grand marshals (otherwise known as ritual elders), musicians, the family of the deceased, and pallbearers; the “second line” is composed of local people who follow the mourners.
After the church service the procession moves to the cemetery, while the band plays slow hymns and dirges. This is the first stage of the universal, three-part ritual format of initiation. The second stage is the actual internment of the deceased at the cemetery, where both the dead and the living briefly share liminal space, outside of time. The third stage is the procession home. Now the second line takes over and the overall spirit changes from melancholy to joyful celebration. The band shifts into high-spirited tunes, and the mourners change from their earlier, slow cadence into wild dancing, or “second lining.” The return to the neighborhood becomes a celebration of the life of the deceased; and in making ritual closure with the dead the mourners achieve re-integration into their community.
This video clip from the last few minutes of the first season of the HBO TV series “Treme” (pronounced trem-ay), depicts a fictional jazz funeral in a particularly sensitive fashion. (Sorry about the inconsistent sound. It’s not your computer.)
LaDonna, the thin Black woman with upswept hair, stands with family members at the end of the funeral service for her brother, who’d been murdered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To signal the beginning of the homeward-bound procession, the band begins to play the traditional tune “Didn’t He Ramble?” Consider the lyrics:
Didn’t he ramble, didn’t he ramble
He rambled all around, in and out of town
Didn’t he ramble, didn’t he ramble
He rambled till the butcher cut him down.
Till the butcher cut him down. This is a culture that does not deny death. And in accepting death’s reality, a culture (or a person) can open itself to the possibility of joyful renewal.
LaDonna is consumed with grief and anger, and seems to be struggling, but she eventually gives in to the rhythm and joins the second-line dancers in the procession. She is on her way toward achieving closure with her lost one. By contrast, Toni (the white, redheaded woman who has also lost a loved one), hasn’t yet been able to access her grief, cannot join the dancing, and walks off alone, passing LaDonna, who is holding her children. Toni won’t approach closure until the second season of “Treme,” when she can no longer hold back the sweet tears of grief.
Later, the band switches to “I’ll Fly Away”:
Some glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
I’ll fly away, Oh Glory, I’ll fly away; (in the morning)
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.
The lyrics (which look to the future) seem to imply envy of the deceased and condemnation of this earthly existence in the human body. But the African-American aesthetic knows better: the lyrics are clearly secondary to the joyous dancing and singing. It is the living who are flying away, back toward their neighborhood, to celebrate their dead – and to acknowledge one more day of life for the survivors, in this moment. Full acceptance and attention to the moment – as mourning – leads to the closure that opens one to gratitude for this life in this body.
For a deeper understanding of the contrast between the lyrics and the musical form, see Michael Ventura’s great essay, “Hear That Long Snake Moan”.
Ironically, in the last few frames of the video (7:27, to be exact), the camera catches one of the actual band members, a thin, aged Black man with a bass drum. He is “Uncle Lionel” Batiste, who died just last week after a very long career in community-oriented music. This Friday (7/13/12), New Orleans is pulling out all the stops to give him the biggest Second-line send-off in years. Art imitates reality, which imitates art. And that’s just how it should be.