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The Art of Mourning

October 31, 2007

Maybe it's because it's Halloween, but I've been thinking quite a bit about rituals surrounding death and mourning lately. The two Halloween concerts I performed with my choral ensemble over the weekend made me realize how much our society has lost touch with the art of mourning.

This loss was made even sharper a couple of days ago when I read an article in Salon about the police crackdown on funeral processions in New Orleans, a time-honored cultural tradition in the historic black neighborhood of Treme. Larry Blumenfeld's story captures the tensions between the brass musicians who've led mourning processions through the neighborhood for hundreds of years and new residents who've recently snapped up property in the neighborhood, which managed to escape the Katrina floods. Residents have been complaining about the noise from the processions. The police have stepped in and made arrests, saying that processions require permits.

Music is the most natural way to express grief and honor the dead. Mourning is difficult enough as it is without becoming entangled with real estate and red tape. Singing songs about death by the great British composers of the 16th and 17th century like Byrd, Tallis and Purcell brought the community which sang and experienced them a little closer to understanding each other and the fragile nature of life. What's happening in New Orleans is widening the gap between people and their grief. That city's been through enough darkness over the past couple of years. Why deepen the void?

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