Way to Go

For the ultimate send-off, hire a funeral band

By Grant Britt
Photograph by Sam Froelich

I’m gonna blow you away.

I made good on that promise in Florida many times, playing trumpet in the Key West Funeral Band in the mid-1970s to the early 1980s. That’s not so unusual in itself, but the fact that I’m a white boy born in North Carolina — and was the only band member of that persuasion — gives my accomplishment a little different perspective. The 150-year-old Key West Funeral Band was the only one of its kind outside of New Orleans, and some of the grandsons of the founders are still current band members.

I first found out about the band when they came marching by the house where I was living in The Conch Republic. I came running out and stood gaping as they passed by in all their ragged splendor, then followed them all the way to the graveyard. I finally worked up enough courage to approach the man I assumed to be the bandleader because he was wearing a captain’s hat, and asked him what the joyful noise was about. Thinking I was just another tourist inquiring about the quaint native customs, he gave me the short version. “It’s a funeral, white folks!” he snapped before turning back to the graveside festivities. After the service, however, I convinced him that I wasn’t a tourist and in fact lived right around the corner from him and had a genuine interest in the proceedings. That’s when he relaxed and opened up a bit.

It helped that I was familiar with the music. I am a confirmed backslid Baptist, a condition brought on by my abiding disrespect of authority of any kind, secular and especially ecumenical. I also have a healthy appetite for alcohol. Though estranged from the church, I have retained both a love and admiration for the hymns. The Baptists can’t abide drinking or dancing, but they’ve got some catchy rhythms suitable for either activity, and I recognized a few of them being played that afternoon.

In the course of the conversation, the bandleader mentioned that they were looking for a trumpet player. I was in my late 20s at the time, and although I hadn’t played since the fifth grade, I told him I was the man and he set up an audition for the following week.

I went back to the trailer my wife and were renting in Key West’s Old Town in a neighborhood settled by the island’s black Bahamian residents and dug out the tarnished, battered horn I had ever since I was thrown out of band for smoking cigarettes. I commenced to drive the neighbors, dogs and family to the brink of madness with my horrendous bleating. By the time of the audition, I had re-familiarized myself with The Broadman Hymnal, that great Baptist musical celebration of blood and salvation, and had honed my bleating to a semiprofessional level. I passed the audition and was inducted into the band. This consisted of the consumption of a bellyful of beer, frenzied backslapping and the eliciting of a couple of promises — that I could perform under the influence and could get Sunday afternoons off, as that is the popular planting time in those parts.

There was one other condition. I had to assemble a uniform — white shirt, black pants and black shoes. Simple enough — for most people. But this was the mid-1970s and I was in favor of an alternative lifestyle, and, being of the hippie persuasion, had thrown out all my corporate togs before relocating from Carolina to Key West. I owned nothing that was the least bit respectable, so I’d have to make do.

Let’s see — here’s a pair of blue pants — that’s close to black, and maybe my fellow band members won’t notice the 2-inch-wide red stripe running down the outside of the leg. And as for shoes, these boots ought to work. So what if the sides are green, red and blue tapestry with 4-inch Cuban heels? The pants will cover them — most of the time. And as for a white shirt, why I’ll just pull out the guayabera, the ornate shirt worn by barbers and Cubans that somebody gave me as a joke. I looked like a Cuban executive or an escapee from a Haitian disco, but it’ll work, I thought.

The other band members thought otherwise and rode me for about six months. They finally gave up when I told them it was a marketing technique to add a little color to the band and that it was good PR. They thought I was crazy, but since I could play the horn and showed up on time, I guess they figured that dressing a little funny could be overlooked, and they finally left me alone.

Now it’s time to get down to business. There you are, all laid out in your Sunday best, looking natural, or as natural as a dead person can look. But looks don’t matter when you’re in the situation you’re in. You’d get a pretty good sendoff even if we weren’t there, because in this part of town, people down here turn a funeral into a celebration. But this is your lucky day. Somebody in the family has scraped together a few extra bucks and hired the funeral band to see that you go out in style.

But first we’ve got to loosen up a little. We usually gather in Regular Fellows, a little club with the coldest A.C. and the hottest jukebox this side of Nassau to have a few tall, cool Ballantine Ales. For the uninitiated, Ballantine is a greenish malt beverage with the odor of kerosene and a kick like a booster rocket. About five of these bad boys running around in your system will have you speaking in tongues. In short, it’s a quasi-religious experience, just the thing for a funeral warm-up.

Don’t infer from this that we got blind before a job. We just needed a little lubrication, as this stuff was thirsty work, and it’s warm down there.

We’re ready. We plant ourselves on your front porch if you got one, or in front of your house if you don’t. Here you come out the door feet first, in the hands of six strong men, and we blow at you until they load you in the hearse. It’s a good-sized blow. Depending on the stature of the deceased in the community, which determines how many people will come out and line the streets to see us strut our stuff, there can be as many as ten of us who have rolled out for the occasion. With a bass, drum, a snare, a pair of tenor saxes, a clarinet, a couple of ’bones and as many as three trumpets on a good day (and only me on a bad one), we could stir up quite a breeze.

Now that we’ve got you tucked away for your last limo ride, we line up in front of you and behind the flower car. We used to follow the hearse, but the exhaust fumes nearly laid all of us to rest, so we spoke with the undertaker and he made other arrangements.

We always try to follow Satchel Page’s admonition about never looking back, because something might be gaining on you, and because the last time we did, something was. On that memorable outing, the hearse stalled and couldn’t be restarted. The pallbearers took the coffin out and put it on rollers for the few final yards into the graveyard. Unfortunately, the hearse had stalled at the top of the only hill in Key West, Solares Hill, which is all of 6 feet above sea level. To complicate matters, the deceased was of considerable bulk. What’s more, the rollers in the hearse were well oiled, and before the pallbearers could get a good grip on the casket, it had gotten away and was headed straight for the band. We turned around when we heard the pallbearers shout, then commenced the fastest double-time in band history, still blasting away. When the pallbearers finally caught up with their charge, we were already in the graveyard hiding behind the biggest tombstones we could find. We all stayed put until they lowered that gentleman in the ground, for as somebody in the crowd remarked, he just wasn’t ready to go yet, and we wanted no part of any more escape attempts.

But that was the exception. Most of the jobs were routine, with the only danger being of a dental nature. As any marching band brass section member can tell you, the meeting of enamel and brass when you step in a pothole and your mouthpiece gives you a good rap in the choppers is not a good thing. It hurts like hell, it plays hob with the rhythm and it’s messy — you get blood all over your nice white shirt. But there’s not a whole lot you  can do about it. You just spit out the teeth, wipe your mouth and keep playing, because we’re just getting started.

We’re going to church now, and this is the toughest part of the job. Since we don’t have a lot of material, we compensate by playing each tune five times. That’s not too bad if it’s a small funeral, but you’ve got a whole lot of friends, you rascal you, and so once we’ve marched to the church, we’ve got to stand outside and blow until the whole funeral procession, including all the mourners have gone in. When we’ve blown the chorus of “Nearer My God To Thee” twenty-five times in a row and the people are still lined up on the sidewalk with no end in sight, we start to get a little edgy. All that Ballantine Ale we loaded onboard earlier is starting to back up in our throats, the sweat is pouring into our eyes and our lips are swollen to the size of truck tires. Finally all your friends, lovers, family and insurance agents have straggled in and the wailing begins.

This is where we break off. All of the services down here are of the open casket variety, and I don’t care how natural you look, none of us wants to be looking at your ugly puss for two and a half hours while the preacher whoops and testifies, and the professional mourners your family paid for are screaming and falling out of the pews and rolling in the aisles. It’s not that we’re disrespectful, but doing this two or three times a week, all that concentrated grief can makes us a little crazy. So we take a serious break and go down on the strip to pass the time. We know you ain’t going anywhere.

After a few more tall cool ones or maybe a little man, as a half pint of hooch is known around here — and maybe a game of dominoes in Bop Brown’s Jazzy Spot — we’re rested and ready to roll once again.

This is the best part of the day. All we’ve got left to do is the home stretch, and just like they do in New Orleans, we’re gonna strut. The city in its wisdom had banned us from rocking out on the way back home from the graveyard because it causes too much commotion and ties up traffic, so we’re gonna do our strutting on the way to the bone yard.

We’ll have plenty of company, and they’re in high spirits as well. Most of the congregation has sneaked out of the church at some point during the two hours the service had been going on and has been doing the same thing we have. The Ladies Auxiliary Choir has been warming up in church during the proceedings, and they’re going to be right behind us. The streets are lined with well-lubricated participants, and we trot out our zestiest stuff for this part of the journey.

The ’bones are wailing, their slides hooking unwary onlookers if they lean in too close to the band. My whole body is vibrating from the blowback from my horn and the others around me. The bass drummer is pounding so hard that the beats are coming back off the walls of the buildings we pass and slamming us in the heart. There ain’t nothing finer — it’s like walking with the King. As one blissful mourner once shouted as we passed by, “Man, you guys sound so good I wish I was dead!”

When we hit the graveyard, it gets even better. All that marble acts like an echo chamber and you can hear the notes running around seconds after you’ve played ’em. We march over to the grave and play one more chorus of “Lead Me To Calvary” as the family gathers around us. The sun is setting, the choir is humming softly in the background, and we finish up in a circle, playing softly as the coffin is set down for the last time.

That’s it for us. We don’t stay for the last rites for the same reason we don’t go in the church. It’s just too much. But still, the day is not over for us. All of us have full-time jobs, for the death rate in this little town won’t allow us to make a living as a band. But that’s fine too — we couldn’t take a lot of this, and at the prices we charge, there’d have to be an epidemic for us to make a killing at this.

So that’s it for you. Everybody said they had a good time. Sorry you missed it. Tell all your friends — well, maybe not. But the word’ll get around anyhow. If you want the best, the Key West Funeral Band is the only way to go. After all, it’s your funeral.  OH

 Grant Britt is still blowing O.Henry readers away, but with his keyboard, not a trumpet.

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