The ”˜jazz funeral’ starts off sombre. On its way to the cemetery, the brass band plays soulful, sad funeral hymns called ”˜dirges’: ”˜Nearer My God to Thee’ is a popular choice, but it can be anything that reminds mourners of the ups and downs of life. This sombre tone lasts until the procession reaches its final destination, at which point they ”˜cut the body loose’ – send the hearse off into the cemetery.
It is at this point that the mourners, themselves, cut loose: the band suddenly breaks into a rendition of ”˜When the Saints Go Marching In,’ or ”˜Didn’t He Ramble,’ or maybe ”˜Lil Liza Jane.’ Relatives and mourners – the ’second line’ – dance with wild abandon. They would often be bedecked with umbrellas, which they would twirl with joy and smiles. Random bystanders are invited to join the celebration: it is considered good form to dance a stranger into the afterlife.
This funeral harkens back to old African traditions – a belief that life wasn’t over at ”˜death.’ The Dahomean and Yoruba of West Africa thought that death, in this world, meant that a spirit could now run free into a new one. Those still living would mourn, yes – but then they could revel in the knowledge that their old friend would be dancing his heart out, on the other side.