By Katie Gilbert, published on August 10, 2006 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
The air is heavy with the solemnity of a funeral. Musicians and spectators with faces subdued by somber jazz hymns form a procession that moves slowly toward its destination: the burial mound. Then comes the point that puts this event in a category all its own: "cutting the body loose." The casket is placed in the ground and the solemn atmosphere snaps from brooding to celebratory—the music shifts to buoyant and the throng dances back to where it started, retracing its melancholic steps.
This is a jazz funeral, one of New Orleans' most distinctive traditions, a melding of African and Sicilian cultures that falls somewhere between a traditional funeral and a parade. "It's not like the Macy's parade where you've got all these people watching," explains Errol Laborde, publisher of New Orleans Magazine. "It's more of a participatory event."
This singular fusion of joy and heartache inspired the planning of the "One New Orleans Procession," a city-sponsored event commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But citizens aren't content with authorities taking the helm. Countless private and public groups in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast have organized weeks of charitable events—concerts, museum exhibitions, ceremonies, and gatherings—for a single purpose: to remember, in unison.
The anniversary of a disaster brings with it a resurgence of emotions. It forces a return to the scene of the horror, in a temporal sense. Revisiting the calendar when disaster struck can lead to internal clamor, involving everything from flashbacks to anxiety and depression. Sufferers often can't pinpoint the cause of this sudden emotional tumult, dubbed the "anniversary reaction."
"Anniversary reactions have a conscious basis," explains trauma psychologist Deborah Serani, a member of the New York Disaster Counseling Coalition. "We know, for example, when the anniversary of Katrina is and we're all gearing up for it. But there are also subconscious issues that trigger our trauma reactions."
These reactions, though unpleasant, can instigate a step toward what Serani calls "mastery" over the offending memories. As with any skill, achieving mastery over a trauma may necessitate some repetition before reaching the ultimate goal.
"If we're not feeling in control of something, we tend to repeat a behavior until we get it right," she says. "People will do all kinds of things: such as looking at the horrible pictures of Katrina over and over, for example. It seems like an odd thing, but some people have to see those horrible pictures in piece form until they comprehend the enormity of it."
How can anniversaries or their unwelcome emotional baggage encourage recovery? "An anniversary reaction is significant because it reminds us that whatever trauma we experienced has not found a resting place," Serani says. "But to relive it and mark it in a particular way can offer great mastery for a person."
Thus it is important to commemorate, even in observance of an event as devastating as Katrina. The profusion of organized events in New Orleans illustrates the multitude of ways the anniversary of a disaster can be observed: from a comedy night, to a prayer breakfast, to the traditional jazz funeral—just about any reaction to Katrina serves the survivors. "There is not one right way to move through pain and grief," says Serani.
Still, are upbeat events like a jazz funeral sacrilegious? Laborde doesn't think so: "It's a perfect expression, because it's something that's indigenous to New Orleans. And it combines the whole mood swing, from the mournful to the letting go."