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Documentary on Black funeral rituals in New Orleans a rich meditation on COVID, death and resilience | COMMENTARY

In this April 22, 2020, file photo, pallbearers, who were among only 10 allowed mourners, walk the casket for internment at the funeral for Larry Hammond, who died from the coronavirus, at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New Orleans. Hammond was Mardi Gras royalty, and would have had hundreds of people marching behind his casket in second-line parades. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)
In this April 22, 2020, file photo, pallbearers, who were among only 10 allowed mourners, walk the casket for internment at the funeral for Larry Hammond, who died from the coronavirus, at Mount Olivet Cemetery in New Orleans. Hammond was Mardi Gras royalty, and would have had hundreds of people marching behind his casket in second-line parades. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File) (Gerald Herbert/AP)

As we reached the one year mark this month of life under COVID, there has been no shortage of articles about how the virus has changed us. One of the most striking and still underappreciated ways it has done so is in our thinking as a society about death.

Prior to COVID, we were not a people who thought a lot about dying. I believe one of the primary reasons for that is that our popular culture, at least when it came to television, has generally avoided it. And one of the primary reasons for that: The commercial networks believed death was bad for business. I know that because multiple network executives have told me so over the years as if it was a truth handed down from a mountaintop on stone tablets even though no one could supply research supporting that claim.

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Death and destruction caused by COVID has changed that situation dramatically, and I believe we are better for it. Existentialism says an awareness of death leads to a fuller and more authentic life. I happen to agree with that. But you don’t have to be an existentialist to appreciate the way thinking about death can at least lead to a more thoughtful and focused life driven by the awareness that our time on earth is limited.

I have written these past 12 months about several death-oriented shows that I feel enriched my life, ranging from the Netflix series “After Life,” starring Ricky Gervais as a middle-aged journalist whose wife dies young, to “Elizabeth Is Missing,” a PBS movie starring Glenda Jackson as a woman with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease trying to solve the disappearance of her only friend. Both rattled around in my brain long after the final credits played. And now comes a “Frontline” documentary, “Death Is Our Business,” which has had the same kind of effect on my psyche. Images from it danced through my dreams earlier this week and I have been thinking continually about some of its themes.

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The documentary by filmmaker Jacqueline Olive (”Always in Season”) looks at the way in which COVID has changed centuries-old Black funeral practices and rituals in New Orleans. That includes horse and carriage processions, jazz musicians and the second line of dancers. The power of the film is found in both the poetry of its imagery and the deep, cultural context and analysis it offers of the African-influenced rituals that have branded New Orleans internationally and provided its Black citizens with a wealth of tradition on which to draw at times of sorrow and loss.

The film opens with a series of images carefully edited to the words sounded in voice-over by New Orleans psychiatrist Dr. Denese Shervington.

“New Orleans is this very complex combination of suffering and joy,” Dr. Shervington says.

On the word “suffering,” the screen fills with stark images of workers in masks handing out bags of clothing and food. On “joy,” images of young musicians dancing in sync on the street as they play their drums overtake the screen.

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“Katrina forced us to think a lot about what it means to heal,” Dr. Shervington continues. “I think we’re having a similar experience with COVID and this pandemic. How do individuals come back from extreme loss, loss of family members, loss of what was normal? How do you find your way back?”

Dr. Shervington’s words immediately contextualize this community’s response to COVID within the history of Hurricane Katrina, an event of disproportionate suffering by Black citizens in New Orleans. She also introduces the notions of resilience and healing in asking how to rebound from events like that.

In the film, jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, a member of the famed musical family of New Orleans, offers a concrete way one of the funeral rituals of the city helps survivors come back from the loss of a loved one.

“The idea of the jazz funeral is actually to help the family,” he says in the film. “And the journey from the church to the burying ground is a process where you can not only reflect and think, but you have people who are there to support you.”

Olive says the jazz funeral has served multiple functions in Black life.

“One, it’s a way of transitioning the soul of the dead,” she said in an interview with The Sun. “So, you have this somber moment and then that turns into almost a street festival celebration. That’s a way of cutting the body loose so it can transition to the other side.”

It also helps those left behind “to be able to deal with their grief collectively,” she said.

“They have people whose shoulders they can literally lean on,” she explained. “You see in the footage, folks hugging each other and supporting each other physically. But it also means people are sharing food and sharing space and stories about their loved ones.”

Marsalis felt the loss of that ritual at a personal level when his father Ellis, the patriarch of the family and an internationally celebrated jazz figure, died at the age of 85 last year as the pandemic worsened.

“He was buried April 4th,” Marsalis says in the film. “We had about 10 people there,” he adds, because of limits on how many mourners were allowed at a funeral at that time to stop spread of the virus.

It’s a much different look than prior to the pandemic.

“There would have been a second line and a jazz procession,” said Jasminne Navarre, director of client services for the D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home.

Louis Charbonnet III, CEO of Charbonnet, Labat-Glampion Funeral Home had similar sentiments: “We’re a jazz funeral town, and it’s hard to tell people you can’t have a jazz funeral. But we have to,”

Even Though COVID denied the Marsalis family the kind of grand New Orleans send-off residents wanted to give the pianist, there is a poignant moment in the film where Olive brilliantly creates a cinematic memorial for him.

She starts with the image and sound of Delfeayo Marsalis and two other musicians standing in a cemetery amid tombstones playing a slow, particularly mournful version of “A Closer Walk With Thee.” The music plays underneath the reciting of an excerpt of a poem written by Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University of Louisiana, in the wake of Marsalis’ death.

“Last night, Ellis Marsalis went away,” Verret says. “No second line. No coming home of acolytes, the many musician daughters and sons. None may return to ring the bell, to celebrate, to mourn. In solitude, we remember.”

Olive brings the music, images and words together in a perfectly distilled cinematic brew that makes your heart ache at the loss of this musical giant’s life. This moment alone would make the film worth going out of the way to see.

“There would have been literally at least 15,000 people lined up for the Ellis Marsalis funeral,” Olive said.

The film goes well beyond memorializing Marsalis or any one New Orleans figure, though.

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“When I finished filming, I really came to understand that this film is a memorial to all those folks who died during the pandemic in which their lives weren’t acknowledged in the way they often deserved,” Olive said.

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“Death Is Our Business” is a tribute, too, to the power of the rich Black funeral traditions of New Orleans and the funeral directors who like jazz musicians have been improvising the last year to keep bits of music, dance and celebration into their services as difficult as that has been in the face of COVID.

“Death Is Our Business,” a Frontline, Firelight Media and WORLD Channel co-production, will air at 10 p.m. Tuesday on Maryland Public Television (MPT) and WETA.

David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik

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