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The New Orleans funeral reminds us that grief is a burden that can be shared

As the nation reckons with the mass deaths from Covid-19, the collective power — and joy — of a second line provides inspiration for how the rest of us might mourn.

Rodrick Davis Sr. dances in the street in New Orleans earlier this month during a funeral second line for pioneering rapper and bounce artist “Josephine Johnny” Watson. New Orleans’s second line tradition encourages celebration, as well as mourning.
Photos by Kathleen Flynn for Vox

Part of the Memory Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Every part of a ritual funeral procession in New Orleans is sacred.

Stafford Agee says it just feels different when he performs one in his hometown. As a musician, his responsibility is to honor the life of the deceased and give the family a little more joy in the transition. “I never liked considering a funeral being a gig,” he says. “I’m performing for somebody’s homegoing ceremony.”

When Agee, a member of the famed Rebirth Brass Band, lifts his trombone, he forges a connection between his city’s musical traditions, those who came before him, and this ritual of remembrance and celebration. In those moments, the car-lined streets and the houses that line the route are transformed into the walls of a church; it’s spiritual. There’s an inescapable solemnity, yes, but also so much laughter.

Stafford Agee, trombone player with the Rebirth Brass Band, at his home in New Orleans in 2020.
Annie Flanagan for The Washington Post via Getty Images

For Black New Orleans, these funeral second lines, sometimes called jazz funerals by observers, have existed for generations. In its simplest form, the second line is a parade, a mass of celebrants and mourners that weave their way through the streets. For the city’s Black culture-bearers who make it their life’s work to uplift and maintain the traditions of their ancestors, the funeral second line is much more. It is one of many sacred cultural rites that originated in the crucible of the American slave trade and are maintained to this day. The term second line refers to the crowd of community members and mourners who follow the first line of the parade — the casket, family, and musicians. In New Orleans, that first line includes percussion alongside a brass band, with trumpeters, tubists, and trombonists like Agee.

Funeral second lines are community events, with sometimes hundreds of people joining the procession. “I come from the era when you’re in your house and you hear music and you go ‘Second line!’ and you run outside,” says Ausettua Amor Amenkum, Big Queen of the Washita Nation, and an artistic director of Kumbuka African Drum and Dance Collective and adjunct professor of dance at Tulane University. For her, the dancing typical in a second line allows each individual to be uniquely expressive but also invites them into a chorus of bodies, where one collective movement becomes a part of a mourning practice.

This month, for example, family and fans took to the streets to celebrate the life of pioneering bounce rapper “Josephine Johnny” Watson, who died in late December at 45. The city, too, has held second lines for Prince, and even Betty White, after their deaths. In New Orleans, grief doesn’t exist without laughter, without dancing, without the movement of bodies, the crush of crowds, and the reminder that death, no matter how somber, is a part of life.

Breanca Simpson, right, dances with Rodrick Davis Sr. as part of the second line procession for Breanca’s cousin, “Josephine Johnny” Watson.
Feet glide and bounce to the sounds of the brass bands. The funeral second line is unique to New Orleans; it’s a tradition that has roots stretching back to the 1800s or even further back, to the beginnings of the slave trade, depending on who you ask.

In a country desperate for exactly that sort of collective mourning, New Orleans’ second line funeral rituals, with their communal nature and celebratory underpinnings, could serve as a much-needed source of inspiration and catharsis.

The past two years have proven how ill-equipped the US cultural framework is to deal with persistent grief, the kind that rises up when hundreds of thousands of Americans die, suddenly and within months of each other. It remains almost impossible to fully grasp the reality of those deaths, as politics and overtaxed systems obscure an accurate count of those lost. In many ways, too, Covid-19 has exacerbated our country’s inarticulateness around grief. So many Americans have had to bear theirs alone, and that isolation has led to the feeling that their pain and sadness is singular and perhaps, insurmountable.

The funeral second line intrinsically taps the power of the collective, reminding mourners that grief is a burden that can be shared.

The “In America: Remember” public art installation placed more than 640,000 white flags over 20 acres of the National Mall in Washington for two weeks in fall 2021.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

There has been very little in the way of national mourning events. Even Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s In America: Remember installation on the Mall honored those who died of Covid-19 but did not offer the community or catharsis of funerary rituals. Efforts at federal legislation for bereavement leave have languished, and states have adopted such policies at a pace well behind comparable countries across the globe. Over the past year alone, suicidality in teenage girls, tic-like disorders in adolescents, and substance abuse in adults were all on the rise. Unattended grief has real consequences, in our bodies and in our communities.

Enter the African, Caribbean, and Indigenous cultures, whose fingers are wrapped around New Orleans’s understanding of life and all its cycles. Enter the second line, with its lungs, its breath, and its room for anyone wanting a place to grieve their losses, no matter how amorphous or distant.

Children dance and lead the procession for “Josephine Johnny” Watson, held in mid-January in New Orleans. The second line funeral rituals invite mourners to join a chorus of bodies, in celebration as well as in grief.

Some historians place the origins of the New Orleans second line in the early 1800s, along with the creation of Black-led mutual aid societies. However, cultural leaders and historians such as Ibrahima Seck, director of research at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, trace them back further, to the West African coast by way of the transatlantic slave trade. Seck notes that because of oral history traditions and laws that codified illiteracy for enslaved Africans, it’s hard to find evidence of second lines before emancipation. However, the dirge, the dancing, and the pageantry of Black New Orleans’s funeral processions have direct links to the funerary practices of Senegal, Gambia, and other West African countries.

Throughout the pandemic, those communal moments of music, dance, and witness-bearing suffered.

From the virus’s arrival, Black New Orleanians bore the brunt of Covid-19’s brutal onslaught. By April 2020, Black people made up a disproportionate 70 percent of reported Covid-19 deaths in Louisiana. Black cultural figures, historians, and musicians perished early on; the deaths of “culture bearer” Ronald W. Lewis, Zulu king Larry Hammond, business owner Leona Grandison, and jazz musician Ellis Marsalis put faces to the detached language of “vulnerable populations.”

Large gatherings were prohibited, second lines halted, and fines issued as the city’s mayor, LaToya Cantrell, attempted to slow the virus’ spread. Without an outlet to adequately mourn these towering figures or the loss of cultural knowledge, loss reverberated through the community. Yet the city’s residents struggled to repress a grief practice so integral to the fabric of the community, even as the rising number of Covid-19 deaths necessitated a pause. (The practice of funeral second lines officially resumed after a year-long ban, but to this day, Marsalis, a cultural titan in New Orleans, has not been honored with a second line, nor have many Black New Orleanians who died in the early days of the pandemic.)

Residents hold a second line procession to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in this image from August 2006. The event served as a way to remember the victims and survivors of the deadly storm.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Layers of grief exist in Black cultural traditions like the second line, says Damia Khanboubi, director of community collaboration at Junebug Productions, a theater company in New Orleans. For the enslaved and formerly enslaved, these traditions reflect the compounded loss of homeland, dignity, and agency under the brutal system of slavery. For modern Black New Orleanians, they reflect the reality of death alongside the systemic inequities that make them more vulnerable to violence, housing insecurity, and inequitable health care. Second lines stand as a reminder of culture, Khanboubi says, but now that they have resumed, they also serve as an exclamation point on political and systemic harm.

The grief traditions of Black New Orleans are intricate and intentional — and distinctly New Orleans, however. “You know, there’s a famous quote by a musician that culture just bubbles up from the street,” says Cherice Harrison-Nelson, co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fame and a leader of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, recalling a quote long attributed to Marsalis. “That’s not true. Because cultural traditions don’t bubble up from the street like Jack and the Beanstalk…We go into our communities and we decide that we’re going to do something, a cultural expression that comes from our deep places to share in our community.” For Harrison-Nelson, “Culture is a language, cultural expression is a language. [My mother] said that people grieve in their mother tongue. The culture is our mother tongue.”

While a second line may not be a universal language, it does provide a template for how to normalize and ritualize collective grieving. In August 2021, artist Sonya Clark created her Beaded Prayers Project, to honor the residents of Detroit who died as a result of Covid-19. Clark’s project is now displayed as an art installation, but included a moment of collective ritual. Detroit residents sat together and crafted their prayer pouches, sharing stories about their loved ones, and creating mementos of the lives lost. Last year, at memorials across the country for Breonna Taylor, the Black EMT killed by police, when the speeches had ended, mourners and protestors belted out her favorite song, Mary J. Blige’s “Everything.”

A regular celebration of this kind in communities across the country could serve as a reminder that while grief is persistent and cannot be diminished, it can be carried together. Communal grieving, funeral processions, collective altars and artwork allow us the time needed to pause and honor both the sadness and the light. Changing our national orientation toward collective grieving means building traditions that allow us to feel the full range of our emotions and to also honor the fullness of the lives we’ve lost — both the people we love and the people we will never get a chance to meet.

Young Fellaz Brass Band performs at the funeral procession for “Josephine Johnny” Watson. Musicians are part of the “first line” of such a procession. Mourners and well-wishers make up the second.

A funeral procession always begins with a dirge, say, a slow mournful version of the gospel hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” When asked which hymns he prefers to play for these dirges, Agee demurs. For him, it’s less about what he likes and more about what kind of music will touch the hearts of the family and help ease the pain of the mourners.

Agee can’t remember his first funeral second line. However, he does recall the older musicians who taught him how it was done, in what order the ritual was performed, and the pacing. A dirge leads the grieving family and community members out of a funeral service and into the open air; Agee likens it to the closing credits of a movie. “When credits start rolling, the music changes…the movie changes, everything changes. Now, I’m gonna celebrate this moment.”

The procession makes its way to the main street. And that is where the body is “cut loose,” as the musicians form a tunnel through which the body passes on its way to the cemetery and on to the next life, perhaps. The dirge ends, and, as the body and the family go on to the burial ground, the tempo and tenor of the processional dramatically change. And so, as the casket proceeds to its final resting place, the air becomes full with the fluttering of handkerchiefs — sometimes emblazoned with the name or image of the loved one lost — raised high. Umbrellas are held aloft as their bearers sway, move, and lean. Then begins the buckjumping, the bodies gliding over pavement, fences, porches, and sometimes even cars. Voices lift together, encouraging, laughing, teasing.

Tamica McGee, 14, dances on a truck that was trying to pass during a second line for her uncle, “Josephine Johnny” Watson, during a second line this month.
A dirge leads the grieving family and community members out of a funeral service and into the open air. It is followed by a shift in tempo — and a shift to a celebratory spirit.

At its heart, a second line is all about touching: the memory of the person who is gone, the lineage of people who have gone before them, and the people around you who also remain behind.

Amenkum is clear: “Regardless of the labels that we put on ourselves—Black, African, Seventh Ward, white, [transplant], carpetbagger, whatever you say— at the end of the day, we’re born, and we die. So coming together to acknowledge that —that rites of passage to the next realm— is real. The funerary rites that New Orleans culture ushers in, allows for us to identify and associate with that commonality that we have.”

Nicole Young is a writer whose non-fiction work has appeared in ZORA and Bitch magazine; she lived in New Orleans until 2020.

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