And now New Orleans musicians will have one:
- She rode to the lounge in a pink limousine, cradling the box that held her husband’s ashes. Inside the bar, under a ceiling of paper stars, she placed the box on a table that would serve as a shrine: There were candles, ceramic angels and an album cover showing the Ink Spots, the fabled quartet he had toured with for 20 years. Overseeing the tableau was a pink-suited mannequin arranged on a rattan throne draped with Christmas tinsel.
Here at the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge lie the ashes of vocalist Lloyd Washington, who was 83 when he died of cancer in June. His shrine, a tribute by friends and fans, is a makeshift response to a sad and familiar problem: How to bury with dignity the artists who have enriched the musical legacy of this city but not themselves.
Like Washington, many of New Orleans’ musicians never have seen a royalty check. Some are buried in a paupers’ cemetery that is pocked with trash and crumbling, homemade tombstones.
Washington’s widow, Hazel, wouldn’t hear of such a thing. She’d sooner cast his ashes to the wind — and might have if friends hadn’t talked her out of it. So, Hazel brought his ashes to the shrine, then went home to grieve and await some sort of resolution.
It came in the form of Paul Barbarin, heir to a large family tomb and part of a New Orleans musical dynasty.
In a room at the Mother-in-Law lounge, with a bust of rumba-boogie pianist Professor Longhair nearby, Barbarin recently signed documents to grant use of his family’s tomb to local musicians — rich or poor — who register to be buried there.
The Barbarins’ musical roots in New Orleans date to the 1800s, when patriarch Isidore Barbarin played alto-horn and mellophone in the Excelsior Brass Band. Paul Barbarin, 73, is named after an uncle who died while leading a brass band in a Mardi Gras parade. More recently, his nephew — jazz trombonist Lucien Barbarin — has worked with Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr.
….Six of the eighteen vaults in the 20-foot-high Barbarin family tomb will be reserved for musicians, Florence said. Most crypts here are built above ground because the water table is so high. And with space at a premium, they often are reused. By law and tradition, a casket can be reopened a year and a day after interment. The remains may be removed and placed in a bag, which goes in a common area inside the tomb. This makes room for a new coffin.
Under this system, the musicians’ tomb will be almost eternal, said Anna Ross, a member of the Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries. Ross is more than familiar with the city’s pragmatic approach to death: In 2001, her daughter — a classically trained harpist — donated a vault in her family tomb for rhythm and blues man Ernie K-Doe. Last year, she reopened the tomb for musician Earl King.
….Washington will be the first to be interred in the musicians’ tomb after it is dedicated in October. He was an early supporter of the idea, performing at a benefit last year where revelers tossed cash into a velvet and sequined coffin that half a dozen “pallbearers” paraded across the dance floor. Similar fundraisers will help pay for a $20,000 renovation of the Barbarin tomb’s brick and plaster interior, Florence said.
On Nov. 2, All Saints’ Day — set aside for paying respects to the dead — Washington’s friends plan to meet at the Mother-in-Law lounge. A brass band is scheduled to lead a jazz procession to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, not far from the French Quarter. As Hazel Washington raises an index finger and drops it down — signifying the release of her late husband’s spirit — the high-stepping, umbrella-twirling celebration will at last begin. [LA Times]
I like that recycling system, which of course only works smoothly when cremation is part of the routine. And I’m sure these guys appreciate spending their post-golden years hanging out together in a communal and dignified setting. I’m pleased to see the special contributions of artists – especially musical and especially from the pre-royalty years – to our culture are starting to be recognized and addressed.
More on the Barbarin family here.