The New Orleans Funeral: A Tribute to Don Perry

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The New Orleans Funeral is a major part of any bona fida New Orleanian's history. While I was growing up it was a fact of life; Pop was an avid Jazz historian and I got my education in filmmaking, music, race relations, you name it, very early on. When Nathan Tape, a Northshore native and student filmmaker, contacted me from Cali and expressed interest in some of the old work, of course I knew he would help me do this tribute to Pop's work. He sent me some framegrabs from Paul Barbarin's Funeral (I was there as well), a film my father had done in 1969. Paul and his brother Louis were both very important N.O Jazz drummers. Danny and Blue Lu Barker, Alvin Alcorn....God....Fats Waller as Grand Marshall....Pete with hair....and I was just 8 years old....
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After Don Perry retired from WDSU-TV in the mid-1990's. I got a chance to really get alot of the details on how it was for my father to grow up in New Orleans. He grew up in the Irish Channel for the most part, son of Josie Rinderle and Daniel Perry, a longshoreman who also had relations in other places along the Gulf and in the Mississipi Valley. Pop had told me, if I remember correctly, that his Perry grandfather was Joseph, a firefighter in St. Louis. Growing up as the lone son of an older German woman has to have been traumatic; the Channel was a rough place. The Rinderles came from Germany (Schwaben) and had been mainstays in the neighborhood; patrons and supporters of Redemtorist Church. They had also built a church for their black employees and their families on their own property in the Channel. The different groups did not attend church together, although it was common for them to break bread together. It is easy to see how, as they all lived in the same neighborhood, these cultures we prone to a certain amount of intermingling.
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There was alot of tug-of-war back during this time, especially during the 40's and 50's and into the 60's. The cultural segregation during the whole 20th century is clear. The civil rights movements began in the 50's and in New Orleans up until then it had been a bit of a moot point. But many black and white families had a reasonably good symbiotic relationship throughout this period, and visitors from many other American cities, especially in the north, often comment on how well our people get along, as compared to their own cultures. Blacks actually had more problems with the Americans from the North who had never totally understood the old ways and actively attacked and ultimately destroyed the Code Noir, introduced by our original French  forbears, which assured liberal social rights for slaves and free people of color, etc., while the Germans, who were coming to the New World all throughout our history embraced the old ways as any ancient culture might, even after the Civil War and Segregation.  It was a class society, but as a port city, it was not as pretencious as northern cities. It changed during the 1960's, as did all of America, but only temporarily, during Civil Rights. 

Danny (Barker) wrote about the origins of the New Orleans funeral. It is a little multi-sided, but the best thing is to show what the combination is. I learned many years ago that even the term "Jazz Funeral" is pretty new. "Brass Band Funeral" or "Funeral With Music" was how they were called. Benevolent Associations were set up to provide for members, often in the form of admission into a tomb built and maintained by the society, or, if the individual already had an interment vehicle of his or her own, at very least most of the other expenses surrounding the interment would be taken care of. They were usually segregated and had a specific organizational leaning but nonetheless reflected a commonality; it didn't matter. If you paid into a society, you got a managed burial. If not, you went into Charity or some other potter's field cemetery or were otherwise on your own, so to speak. Danny  had mentioned in his book "Bourbon Street Black" about the roots from Africa: it was also joined with the state funeral concepts introduced by other cultures. If you received a State funeral, or something resembling that effect, you were important. Even in death our people like parades.

As Danny had written, the African-American origins of the New Orleans funeral go back to Benin and Nigeria, in western Africa. The secret societies of the Dahomeans and Yoruba people assured fellow tribesmen that a proper burial would be performed upon their deaths. To accomplish this, resources were pooled into what became referred to as 'benevolent societies" or associations in the City and the surrounding area. As everything melted into New Orleans' culture, as had been known to happen for so many decades and generations, it was all about New Orleans and its neo-Catholic traditions. Political figures also got "brass band funerals" or "funerals with music". Even Mardi Gras is affected by this. Mardi Gras "krewes" are a continuation of the same types of traditions. The Zulu krewe in New Orleans is officially known as the "Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club", also a form of benevolent society.

As in state or military, etc., funerals, the procession is the most distinguishable aspect. Beginning with a dirge after the funeral service, the procession makes it's way to the cemetery predomitably on foot (excepting the hearse and family vehicles, etc.). As these processions necessarily traversed various neighorhoods en route, residents of these neighorhoods were often attracted to these processions out of simple curiosity in many cases. This brings rise to the "Second Liners", the second line of supporters and neighorhood residents who sometimes didn't even know for sure who had passed away. During this phase, on the way to the cemetery, a dirge, often "A Closer Walk With Thee" was played. After the interment itself, upon exiting the cemetery, the and then broke into an upbeat number, traditionally "The Saints", to complete it's last leg to the family reception.

Danny did a great tune...a takeoff on St. James Infirmiry, "Went Down To Touro Infirmiry". I was born there; Pop died there. It just one of the connections. The song is my favorite, as well as Pop's. Bless You All.


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