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Stripped of its cultural rites, New Orleans is at a loss for how to mourn Covid-19 deaths

Smaller funerals, no second-lining, no traditional sendoff: “It’s like their soul is not being released by all of the community.”

Carol “Kit” Harris, holds her granddaughter Ja’Niya Dabney’s hand, 11, as she says her final goodbye’s to her mother Mary “Grams” Braud Harris, left, and aunt Clarice “Reecie” Braud Willis, right.
Kathleen Flynn for Vox

Editor’s note: This story was reported before the uprisings across the country, when much of New Orleans was sheltering in place.

NEW ORLEANS — Derrick “Khabukey” Shezbie, 45, has stood outside this door hundreds of times, horn in hand. Usually, when the pallbearers in white gloves come out the door to carry the casket to the hearse, he and the brass band he’s with strike up the dirge “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” starting a second-line funeral procession.

But Shezbie held only a cigarette as he stood by that familiar funeral home door. This time, he was about to step inside, to take part in a memorial service for his father, Phillip Shezbie, who died at home of a heart attack in April at age 70. (No one knows if Covid-19 played a role in his father’s heart failure; only bodies that come from hospitals are tested for coronavirus.)

Derrick “Khabukey” Shezbie has a smoke under the Claiborne overpass after his father’s funeral in late April.

The service was scheduled to begin in five minutes. It was Shezbie’s job to pick who would get to be in the room. He lifted his index finger in the air, like he was trying to pick a playground team. There were 10 seats inside, draped in black and spaced 6 feet apart, in compliance with official protocols to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The first picks were easy: his aunt, his dad’s girlfriend, two cousins. But then it got complicated.

He beckoned to a lifelong friend and a few more people, then walked inside. Just as he took his seat, he realized that he’d overlooked his dad’s baby brother. He jogged to the back of the room to tell a funeral director, who gently escorted out one of the last picks and waved in his uncle.

Shezbie, a well-known jazz trumpeter, knows funerals in New Orleans. For nearly four decades, since he was in primary school, he’s played his horn in the city’s most renowned jazz funerals, followed by hundreds, even thousands, of dancing mourners. Then, more than two months ago, jazz funerals and other cultural traditions were silenced, as the coronavirus slammed into Louisiana, bringing a per capita death rate that topped the nation.

Tyrone Shezbie stands at the casket of his brother Phillip Shezbie.
Khabukey Shezbie, second from left, carries his father’s casket, with friends and family members by his side.
The Rev. Charles Morris Daniels of Christian Mission Baptist Church says some final words for Phillip Shezbie.
Musician Corey Henry, left, and Khabukey Shezbie walk out with the hearse as Glen David Andrews plays a dirge outside of the funeral home.

Since the pandemic first hit the city in March, overwhelmed funeral homes have scrambled to schedule as many as five funerals a day and to implement city emergency protocols — which capped funeral capacity at 10, banned second-line parades, and discouraged mourners from touching loved ones’ bodies in a casket. New Orleans began a cautious, phased reopening on May 16, but funerals and religious gatherings still have restrictions. (Churches are now allowed to admit up to 25 percent of overall capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer).

This small, socially distanced gathering for Shezbie’s father was starkly different from the homegoing for his mother, Theresa Shezbie, in 2012. Then, he threw a music-filled funeral followed by a massive second-line funeral procession through the streets of the Treme neighborhood. Dozens of musicians showed up to help him mourn his mom, creating a band so big that, in photos, an entire row of sousaphones is visible above the crowd that accompanied her hearse on its last ride.

The extended Shezbie family — many of them drummers, musicians, singers, dancers, and baby dolls — relies on that musical tradition to grieve, sometimes even more than funeral services themselves, said Irma Shezbie McNeil, 73, Khabukey Shezbie’s aunt. “Over the years, sometimes, we have had to go outside to tell them to be quiet. But we know the musicians mourn through the music,” she said.

All across the country, cities are floundering as communities try to mourn the death that has reached an enormous scale while remaining nearly invisible — bodies go from locked-down hospitals to funeral homes with tightly limited audiences.

But the lack of communal mourning has hit especially hard in tight-knit New Orleans.

Family members walk toward the Professional Funeral Home in New Orleans.

“Funerals in New Orleans are a way of both bonding and consoling each other on a community level,” said clarinetist and historian Michael White. “Compared to most places I’ve seen, in New Orleans, we’re all related, maybe not by blood but by spirit. ... So we share in the grief and the sorrow, and we want to share it in a community way, a public way.”

For Shezbie, it simply seemed wrong to not have music playing as his father was carried toward his final resting place. So, at Shezbie’s request, trombonist Glen David Andrews showed up to play. As the pallbearers came out the door to a waiting hearse, the trombonist struck up a classic dirge from outside the funeral home’s iron fence. He kept pace with the hearse as it crept out the driveway and headed to the cemetery.

The cultural tradition of the New Orleans funeral

Funeral processions — led by grieving families and a brass band and followed by the “second line” of mourners — are key to New Orleans’s distinctive African American culture, which includes the city’s musicians, bone men, social aid and pleasure clubs, baby dolls, and black masking Indians, sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians.

“Second-lining, the music and dancing, is about uplifting the spirits of the departed. This is what we know and have always known that we were supposed to do,” said Dow “Spy Boy” Edwards, 58, a black masking Indian and leader within the cultural community.

Edwards, who has lost several friends to the virus, supports the restrictions. But when he loses a friend, he finds it hard not to second-line. “Now that we can’t do that, it’s painful,” he said. “We start questioning, ‘If we don’t do this, will our loved one get to his rightful place?’ It tears at the fiber of who we are.”

A program for Leona “Chine” Grandison’s funeral filled with photos of her with family and friends. Grandison died at 69 years old after contracting the coronavirus.
Grandison owned the Candlelight Lounge, a popular nightclub in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans.

These funeral processions are a “West African retention” that originated with enslaved people who were brought here from Africa, according to White. “When I started playing in brass bands when I was in my 20s, it was like I had found my people, I had found my village,” he said. “What I noticed is that the spirit that bonds us removes all everyday barriers: how you were brought up, education, social status, jobs. All types of people are out there, but we are all the same.”

When jazz music arose more than a century ago, it added a whole new layer to the moving celebrations, said White, who noted that, from its start, during the Jim Crow period of de jure segregation, jazz symbolized the freedom of individual expression, through improvisation, growls and whistles, bent tones, and vibrato.

White, who is 65, estimates that he may have played 200 funerals in his lifetime. Lately, he’s been avoiding them, because he knows a lot of people who have gotten sick with Covid-19 and at least 10 who have died.

But it bothers him that none of the victims of the coronavirus got the second line they deserved. “The thing I was wondering is what happens to all the souls that are restless and unable to completely transition,” White said. “It’s like their soul is not being released by all of the community. It feels almost disrespectful. Of all of the hard things about the coronavirus, this is high on my list. It’s just not right.”

How Covid-19 has changed the way New Orleans prepares and celebrates the dead

African American communities in New Orleans, like elsewhere, have experienced a disproportionate number of deaths due to Covid-19. Of the more than 500 coronavirus victims in New Orleans, about 80 percent are African American, according to data from the city.

Starting in March, local funeral parlors began scheduling back-to-back memorial services, just to keep up with caseloads that have doubled and even tripled over the past two months.

“We’ve been busy before. But to have funerals every day? It’s just unknown,” said Markeith Tero, 41, of Professional Funeral Services, who said he has been working almost nonstop, sometimes until 1 or 2 am.

Families in the city often have relationships that span generations with funeral homes. “Who did the body?” is a common question across the city, because people like to see a loved one whose hair and makeup looks just right for the open-casket viewings that are customary in New Orleans. For some people, death doesn’t feel real until they have seen the body in the coffin with their own eyes.

Much of the staff from Charbonnet Family Services in Treme grew up nearby and know many of the people coming through. So instead of simply working from a photograph, they can dress and style someone as they knew them in life. When bar owner Leona “Chine” Grandison, 69, died of Covid-19 earlier this year, prep team member Darron DeQuair, a longtime family friend, worked on her with special care.

The extra attention showed, said neighbor Patricia Farley, 62, who walked up to say goodbye to Grandison through the plate-glass window that Charbonnet built for its drive-through viewings. “She looks like she’s asleep,” Farley said, with an approving nod. “They got Chine looking like herself.”

Wanda Pearson, of the Gold Diggers Baby Dolls, pays her respect for Grandison at a drive-through viewing.
Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home prep team member Darron DeQuair.
Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home embalmer Stephanie Simon.
Kenard Bienemy makes final preparations before a drive-through viewing at the Charbonnet Labat Funeral Home.

Though it’s believed that the virus dies with the body, there is some debate; the World Health Organization has recommended that Covid-19 victims not be embalmed. But guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that embalming can be safely done, a point supported by the National Funeral Directors Association, which wrote in a statement that “embalming and viewing the body is an important part of meaningful memorialization.”

While some funeral directors in the city have become infected, presumably from family members before the virus was a recognized threat in the city, no one could recall anyone getting sick from the prep-room side of the business. Perhaps because the embalmers, beauticians, and stylists who prepare the bodies have long worn protective aprons and gloves and began wearing impervious coveralls and head-to-toe gear as soon as the pandemic struck.

However, a few New Orleans funeral homes have been reluctant to take any victims at all. “It was the unknown,” said Joan Rhodes of Rhodes Funeral Home, whose staff determined early on that they could safely take Covid-19 victims.

Rhodes called City Hall after seeing breaches of protocol, including bodies that were released by hospitals with intact medical tubes and drains, which can leak, causing a health hazard. Rhodes ended up leading a task force to determine funeral and burial practices that issued guidance for anyone handling the bodies of Covid-19 victims.

In a scan of municipal responses to Covid-19, it appears that New Orleans is only one in a handful of cities with such a task force. Funeral directors are also specifically named as first responders in the emergency orders issued by the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans. That made sense to White. “For us in New Orleans, death is something that has to be handled a certain kind of way,” he said. “It’s a special part of life, if you will.”

But when shortages of medical protective equipment were making the news, it wasn’t clear that funeral homes would be prioritized. So embalmers Stephanie Simon from Charbonnet Family Services and Duplain Rhodes from Rhodes scrambled to upgrade their equipment from the typical physician’s scrubs, paper aprons, and plastic gloves. They went to Home Depot and picked up dozens of white hooded Tyvek painters coveralls, which they now wear every time they go into the prep room, along with heavy-duty respirators or N95 masks and plastic face shields.

“I don’t feel comfortable going into the embalming room without this now,” said Simon, who has embalmed for 30 years and now trains others in safety standards.

But ramping up in-house protections from the virus may have been easier than getting families to downscale expectations, to comply with the law. The hardest barrier has been the 10-person memorial service limit. In March, police were called when the Big 6 Brass Band played a second-line parade that attracted about 100 people. The band’s leader faced charges for violating official emergency orders; within the first two weeks of the order, a total of 755 people were issued court summonses by police for gatherings larger than 10 people.

Brittney Elmore waits to greet family and friends of Leona Grandison, during a drive-through viewing for her.

So funeral directors got inventive, arranging for streamed, online funeral services, and drive-through viewings of bodies. When musician Big Al Carson died in April of a heart attack, Rhodes Funeral Home hosted a musical wake that was shown on a big screen in the parking lot, where the family handed out special passes to the two dozen cars parked there to watch his bandmates play a musical tribute to him on the screen; the music they performed was broadcast live on a special low-frequency radio station, like a drive-in movie.

Even for Tero, who is accustomed to death, the virus feels very close. Last month, he got the call to pick up his cousin Phillip Shezbie in the company’s hearse. Other victims, too, are familiar. “Sometimes, we’ll get a group text alerting us that someone has to pick up a body. And I’ll go in, pull back the sheet, and say, ‘Wait, I went to school with that person,’” he said.

Though deaths have declined in recent weeks and have stayed stable even as the city began the first phase of its reopening, Tero believes they may even see an uptick of funerals in June, as families who have been waiting to host a more “normal” New Orleans funeral pick up their loved ones’ bodies from the coroner and other refrigerated storage spaces. “Our business won’t slow down for a while,” he said.

The creative task of planning a funeral in the pandemic

In April, Carol “Kit” Harris, 61, and a few other “baby dolls” — an African American masking tradition where women dress in satin dresses and bloomers — had a brainstorm. They began bringing lunch to funeral homes each Friday, to make sure the funeral directors were nourished while working. “We stop by and say, ‘Here’s a hot meal; you are not forgotten,” said fellow baby doll Joell Lee.

Carol “Kit” Harris delivers lunch to a funeral home.

Like most everyone in New Orleans, Harris knows at least a dozen people who have died. The virus had also taken a very personal toll: As she dropped off meals to Professional Funeral Home in mid-April, she knew that they were holding the body of her mother, Mary “Grams” Braud Harris, 84, who died on April 7. At first, the Braud family had talked with the funeral home and scheduled a service for May 9. They hoped that some of the emergency order’s restrictions might be lifted by then, allowing them to mourn in their accustomed way.

But as the month wore on, the number of virus cases grew rapidly, filling local hospitals with patients, including her 83-year-old aunt, Clarice “Reecie” Braud Willis, who died on April 28. It became clear that to bury their family’s two matriarchs, they would have to scale down their usual family traditions, to fit the coronavirus era.

In normal times, the women’s homegoing celebrations would have been a week-long event, with family members flying in from all across the country. But pandemic travel is not easy and was made harder by orders issued by several states requiring a two-week mandatory quarantine for anyone coming from pandemic hot spots like Louisiana.

The funeral restrictions hit particularly hard for Carol Harris’s family, which is close-knit and connected to faith in a way that’s familiar to many big families in this predominantly Catholic city. In New Orleans, it’s not unusual for the parish priest to be an extension of the family who gets a bottle of Jack Daniels every year on his birthday. Cousins act like siblings, and gatherings of “immediate family” can mean 50 or 60 people. “People see pictures of our family and say, ‘Was that a family reunion?’ And I’ll say, ‘No, that was just us getting together on a Tuesday night for someone’s birthday,” said Harris, who is the third of 10 children.

Kit Harris sings and dances as the caskets carrying her mother, Mary “Grams” Braud Harris, and aunt Clarice “Reecie” Braud Willis are moved to a nearby cemetery.
Pallbearers set the family matriarchs’ caskets together at St. Vincent DePaul Cemetery.
Ja’Niya Dabney, 11, holds flowers she collected from the funeral.
Keshona Holmes takes a photo of her partner Jared Harris in front of the coffins of his grandmother and great-aunt.

So when family members heard the news that Mary Harris had died, they instinctively headed to the family house on Coliseum Street in Uptown New Orleans, even though the city had already issued stay-at-home orders. “I had nephews standing post, every six feet, up and down the block,” Harris said. “It’s what our family does. If someone dies, everybody comes together.”

Like other grieving families, the Braud family created a special private Facebook account, and as the funeral crept closer, text messages flew back and forth, as family members made sure that arrangements were as “normal” as they could be.

One sister made everyone matching medical masks. The siblings also divvied up the 20 seats — 10 for each woman — within the small chapel. While funeral audiences are often gray-haired, the audience for the double funeral was not. That was partly because none of the remaining siblings of Mary Harris could risk possible exposure to the virus. Though it pained them, they stayed home and watched the ceremony streamed on Facebook Live.

Also, several of Mary Harris’s children handed over their seats to the family’s younger generation — the grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who often conspired and texted with their grandmother into the wee hours of the morning. “My mom learned to keep up with y’all; she’d want you here,” said Kit Harris, as she stood between the matching coffins at the front of the chapel.

It would be the last time she’d see her mother. So Harris leaned over to touch her hand and give a parting kiss. “I could not properly say goodbye without a kiss,” she said. “That’s my mama. And anybody that feels that I could harm them, they don’t need to come around. It’s just that simple.”

She stepped outside and viewed her mother’s memorial on a cellphone from the funeral home’s front sidewalk.

Mourning without a proper sendoff

Before the virus hit, it was common for a funeral procession to wend its way through a person’s neighborhood, even stopping at a corner pub to put the coffin on the bar. Carol Harris had hoped that the two hearses could pass by the family house on Coliseum Street before heading to the 100-year-old family tomb at St. Vincent DePaul Cemetery.

But that wasn’t possible now. Both police escorts and funeral home personnel have to stay precisely on schedule to handle all of that day’s funerals.

Typically, families also host an afternoon-long “repast,” often at a church or community center, where hundreds of people pass through to eat plates of food and pay their respects. That, too, was drastically scaled down. After the double funeral, about two dozen members of the Braud-Harris family were able to gather — with space for social distancing — about a block away from the funeral home, in the back patio of a friend’s bar, which was otherwise shuttered by the emergency order.

Later, as a dozen family members gathered at the house to sing and reminisce, Harris got sentimental in the piano room. She touched the worn keys of the century-old Weber piano, with most of the ivory missing, and remembered how she had been sent to this room every Monday, to say the rosary to the little statue of the Blessed Mother Mary.

Being in this house, the house built by her grandfather, made her grieve for absent family members and the traditions they’d been forced to set aside. But she was confident that, long after the virus was relegated to history books, this family and its spirit would endure. “One thing is for sure: This legacy, the legacy of this house on Coliseum Street, will live on,” she said. “We have a whole lot of history right here in this place.”

Erin Harris dances with her cousins, mom, and aunts, including Kit Harris (third from right), in the back patio of a friend’s bar after the funeral.
Khabukey Shezbie arrives home after his father’s funeral.

After his father’s funeral, Khabukey Shezbie had walked a block from the funeral home to the same bar the Harrises did, to talk with the other man who raised him, proprietor Kermit Ruffins, who kept the teenage Shezbie in line while they were on tour with the Rebirth Brass Band.

Neither of them had any gigs right now, because all clubs and concert halls were closed. So they laughed and joked for a while and then Shezbie went home.

He sat on the front porch and marveled at the orange double-shotgun house that his mother bought in 1992 using money from a record contract that Shezbie received from Quincy Jones and a life insurance policy for his brother, a bystander killed by a stray bullet in the Treme area.

Over the years, Shezbie has, one by one, lost his brother, mother, and now father. He made peace with those deaths through his music and through gatherings of people he loved. But this time, he hasn’t been able to grieve right, he said. And though his elderly uncle Tyrone sometimes stays at the house, Shezbie is mostly alone, trying to figure it all out. Sometimes he feels like there are too many ghosts in the house; he doesn’t like to walk through it at night.

Often, he finds himself sleeping on the couch, not far from the end table where his Grammy stands.

He knows his mom would frown at that. “I can hear my mom say, ‘Boy, you’re wearing my darn couch out. Get up and go to your bed. That’s why you have a bed,’” he said.

He pulled out a photo album that showed the family when he was small. There were photos of him getting picked up by the Secret Service to play for George Bush Sr. Photos of him tap-dancing in Jackson Square. Images of his mother’s big funeral parade. “I miss her,” he said, taking a puff on his cigarette. “I miss him, too.”

Katy Reckdahl is a frequent contributor to the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, WDSU television, and the New York Times. She has won more than two dozen first-place awards from the New Orleans Press Club and has received a James Aronson Award, a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, and three Emmy Awards.

Kathleen Flynn is a New Orleans-based photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. She has covered in-depth community news, veterans issues, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and post-conflict Liberia.


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