By Scott Jordan
New Orleans musicians are constantly being called on to donate their time and art for benefits and fundraisers of all different stripes, so it's a nice change to see a benefit for the musicians themselves this week. It's just eerie that it helps the musicians when they die.
Death don't have no mercy, says the immortal Rev. Gary Davis song. And for many New Orleans musicians and their families, that truth is discovered too late. Bethany Bultman, co-founder of the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, knows that scenario all too well.
"When my husband Johann was still in the funeral business and on the board of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the families of New Orleans music legends that died would often come to Bultman Funeral Home," remembers Bultman. "The tragedy was that they would quietly come in and say, 'The family doesn't have any money. Could you donate a casket and negotiate with the cemetery for a proper send-off?' We were very saddened by the poverty of so many people that we had great esteem for."
Emotional impact aside, Bultman also knows the hard practicalities involved. "Death is a time frame, too. You have to get someone into the ground."
Rob Florence of Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries (FONC) shares that sentiment and is assisting with an effort to help needy New Orleans musicians receive a proper burial. FONC is a nonprofit organization whose principal mission is tombstone restoration and preservation -- and Florence wants to establish a tomb designated for musicians. "A lot of musicians don't need this service, but a lot do, as burial can be expensive and complicated," says Florence. "We're going to have a register, so that musicians can register with FONC ahead of time, so they can be buried and there won't be any confusion or uncertainty as to what to do. Their request will be honored by us." (The screening process for eligible musicians will be the same one used by the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, which is currently in discussion with FONC for some form of partnership.)
Florence has targeted the Cazadores de Orleans Society Tomb in St. Louis Cemetery #2 for the proposed musicians' tomb. Approximate restoration cost for the tomb is $55,000, but raising the finances is just the beginning of what promises to be a worthy -- albeit potentially extremely complicated -- process. One recent example: when Ernie K-Doe died, his family plot was in Irwinville, and his immediate family wanted him buried there with his father. His wife Antoinette's family plot is in Gentilly. But K-Doe himself always expressed an interest in being buried in St. Louis Cemetery #2.
"It's because he always walked past there going to Canal Street, and he always admired that cemetery," says Antoinette. "And Blue Lu Barker [and Danny Barker and Paul Barbarin] was in there, and his wish was to be around the musicians. ... I didn't want to take New Orleans history out of New Orleans."
The K-Doe issue was resolved amicably between all the family members, and K-Doe stayed in New Orleans. But that scenario is just the beginning of the maze of family emotions and possible scenarios that Florence will be navigating for this venture. For example, what if an indigent musician's wife, and additional family, wants to be buried with him in an FONC tomb? And with approximately 30 tombs available in the Cazadores de Orleans Society Tomb, if the program does succeed, additional tomb space would be required.
Those are just some of the obstacles Florence will face, but for now, getting the message out is paramount. "The thing about this tomb, is that you can be as well-known as Ernie K-Doe or Earl King, but we're just as concerned with musicians who aren't as celebrated. I would think this happens all the time with musicians who are more anonymous, that they haven't made burial plans."
In addition to the immediate benefits for needy musicians, the program is worthy of assistance from the City of New Orleans, as FONC's Musicians' Tomb also has potential tourism benefits. Music devotees across the world regularly make trips to the gravesites of fallen icons as diverse as Charley Patton, Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison, and a central burial spot for New Orleans musicians could attract similar pilgrimages.
Ultimately, the program's worth is shockingly simple. A Musicians' Tomb does more than preserve New Orleans music history -- it preserves with dignity the very artists that made that history.-->
Musicians interested in registering and anyone interested in making a financial contribution can call Rob Florence at 949-2785. The July 13 benefit features James Andrews, Bruce "Sunpie" Barnes, Harold Brown, Davell Crawford, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Big Chief Tootie Montana, Rockin' Dopsie Jr., Walter "Wolfman" Washington and more. Admission is $10.