And the Band Played On: A Funeral in New Orleans
During a recent visit to New Orleans, I attended the funeral of Antoinette K-Doe who passed away on February 24th, the first day of Mardi Gras this year. Owner of the popular Mother-in-Law restaurant in Treme, one of the oldest African American neighborhoods, Ms. K-Doe was a well-known and much-loved figure in her community. Inside her restaurant, she had erected a shrine for her late husband Ernie K-Doe, a musician who wrote the hit song, “Mother-in-Law,” who, as the story goes, she saved from a sad, somewhat dejected life. Additionally, she took twenty-seven foster children under her care and was indeed a fixture on the Krewe de Vieux floats during Mardi Gras parades.
Although funerals usually offer us a good reason to pause, reflect on living, and give due respect to the departed, I have also found them to be uncomfortably solemn events with little or no room for levity. Not so at Antoinette K-Doe’s farewell. That warm, drizzling afternoon, as musicians played trombones and people swayed to jazzy melodies, I stood in the street with a dear friend and found myself light-hearted and in the mood to dance. At a funeral, yes.
I had never seen anything like it before.
About fifteen minutes after we got there, a horse-drawn hearse pulled up and waited outside the entrance of the small church. Wearing pink-feathered hats, three young women, dressed in black pencil skirts and high heels, wandered about the crowd. And it all grew especially interesting when a mannequin was carried out of the church – a life-size Ernie K-Doe, dressed to the nines in white and wearing a long wig! Hilarity. He was placed in an open carriage that had pulled up behind the hearse and then he was fitted with a white top hat. Apparently, if I had seen one of the Krewe de Vieux floats during Mardi Gras, I would have understood more fully what I had just witnessed, as this Ernie K-Doe often accompanied Antoinette K-Doe on it.
And the band played on, while the crowd grew larger by the minute. And when the coffin was carried out of the church, the crowd became more chaotic and rather animated. People jumped about almost gleefully with umbrellas and danced even harder. A man with a brown, furry Mardi Gras suit danced the hardest, his headwear inches taller than everyone and bobbing up and down wildly yet rhythmically. A woman in a purple baby doll costume appeared with the coffin, then led the procession while dancing in step with a few others.
We followed the funeral procession as it snaked its way noisily toward K-Doe’s restaurant. The opulent sounds from the trombones prevailed. People continued to dance and sing. I didn’t see one tear shed – however, I did notice some solemn faces. At the restaurant, the coffin was pulled out of the hearse and lifted three times to hearty cheers from the crowd. “Ernie K-Doe” got to go in first; then, Antoinette K-Doe was taken into her brightly painted restaurant for the very last time. A well-dressed man then stood guard at the entrance, and the rest of us milled around outside, even as the musicians finally took a break.
Thirsty now, I went around to the other side of the restaurant to see if could buy a bottle of water and came upon a colorful, crowded garden filled with flowers in purple and yellow bathtubs and a shopping cart parked at one end, decorated with Mardi Gras beads. A small dried-up Christmas tree stood atop the cart. I noticed a number of plant beds, displaying colorful flowers, many of which were not real – and underneath my feet patches of green carpeting unfolded everywhere.
For a fleeting, disorienting moment, I had no idea where I was, or how I had found myself there. Like Alice, had I indeed fallen down a wondrous hole? And when I came back to my senses, I realized that I had forgotten yet again, as I would over and over that afternoon, about mortal endings, now obscured by a fervent celebration of a fascinating life.
And that was precisely the point of all this merriment, I thought, as I caught a gentle smile from the woman in purple baby doll costume and then slowly made my way back to my friend. Behind me someone started up a soft tune on a trumpet, yet another reminder that day, of course, that life inevitably goes on.
Angela Ajayi spent over ten years in publishing, mainly as a book editor, until she became a freelance writer. She holds a BA from Calvin College and an MA from Columbia University. Her essays and author interviews have appeared in the Star Tribune and Afroeuropa: Journal of Afro-European Studies. She currently writes book reviews for The Common Online. Her first short story, “Galina,” will be published by Fifth Wednesday Journal this fall. She likes to think she defies easy categorization, identifying through birth and citizenship as a Nigerian-Ukrainian-American writer. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and daughter.
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