I’ve long lectured about the role of the New Orleans funeral in the story of jazz. And admired its two-fold perspective on life and death. In brief:
It is sad beyond sad to say goodbye to someone who you knew and loved and is worthy of a grief beyond your immediate endurance. And it is happy that you have had the privilege to know them and can live on their behalf by living as they would want you to live—joyfully and happy. And so the mourners process solemnly to the graveyard with a brass band playing a slow hymn or funeral dirge, lower the body into the ground, tighten up on the snares and come dancing back joyfully to the exuberant up-tempo music. In this ways, the grief and joy are both honored, there is room for tears and laughter, the dearly departed are given a send-off they deserve and those left behind are given the tools to bear up and keep moving forward. It’s okay to put some “fun” into “fun-eral, but never casually and sidestepping the grief. Go down deep and rise up high. The deeper the grief, the higher the happiness.
And so attending my first Ghanaian funeral yesterday, it was clear where the New Orleans tradition came from. Not the specifics, but that mixture of deep grief and festive celebration. We were seated outside when we heard the drums and they processed toward the courtyard, large drums held over the head and played by someone else, rattles, bells, singing. Various women were publicly mourning in the way the occasion deserved and extravagantly so, body-shaking sobbing and keening and shouting, held up by their friends. No dainty tear dabbed at with a handkerchief and an apology. Full-out mourning, the kind where you don’t look good and you don’t care. Then the coffin carried in soon after and put inside a building and the doors shut. All circled around again in the courtyard with the music full tilt and the inevitable dancing and inviting others to get up and dance and not much to mark it from any other occasion where music is happening.
Now apparently in the “old days,” this would go on all night and into the next day, when the body is taken to the graveyard and more ceremony, music and dancing continues. The whole affair would take anywhere from two days and nights to three. Apparently, a new version is to play recorded music all night long and then the live version again the next day. But in either case, time is crucial. This is no short polite little affair with pleasant words and a quiet hymn or two and people hanging around the food afterwards talking about their new i-Phone. Life and death is a serious matter and no time for business as usual. The dead deserve us to make a fuss and by going to the edge of our grief and then some, held by friends and family and ritual and the deep power of the drums and dance for hours and hours and hours, we will save ourselves some depression and therapy later on when all that un-grieved sorrow calcifies in our soul and causes some hidden damage.
So in the midst of it, my three companions and I turned to each other and pledged that whoever went first, the rest would organize a funeral like this. No pleasant affair with cheese and crackers, but something with thunderous drums, wailing horns or bagpipes, invitation to grieve visibly and forcefully and of course, lots of dancing. Once again, Ghana points the way to healthy living, in this case, by the way they attend to healthy dying.