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Room at the Tomb for Musicians

The Nation | DISPATCH FROM NEW ORLEANS

A family's crypt is opened to local artists who need a final place to rest.

September 07, 2004|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — 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.

"People just want to do something for musicians who have done so much for this city," said Rob Florence, president of the preservation group Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries. Paul Barbarin, who lives in Los Angeles, declined to be interviewed.

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.

K-Doe -- known for the 1961 No. 1 hit "Mother-in-Law" -- could have been buried in a family plot in the countryside, but he wanted to stay in the city. "If you're from New Orleans, you want to be buried in New Orleans," said his widow, Antoinette, who operates K-Doe's namesake bar. "It's good to have the musicians buried in one place so people don't have to go all over to look for them."

She fusses with the life-size mannequin at the club, meant to resemble her eccentric late husband. It's currently dressed in a Pepto-Bis- mol-pink suit. "See, our manicures are the same," she said, wriggling her fingers next to the mannequin's long, pink-and-white nails. "Sometimes, I take the hands off to get them manicured across the street."

She recalls when K-Doe, who was black, was buried in the tomb belonging to a white family. "We took a lot of heat for that," she said. Ross said that "some people asked: 'What are those white women doing with those bodies?' I promise you, no one is collecting dead, black musicians. It was just the right thing to do."

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.

"My husband gave his voice and service to the world by singing and making many people happy," Washington said. "With the musicians' tomb, now people will know where to find him."

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