Swimming attire is on sale, back-to-school supplies line the shelves in almost every store and the sun has started to set earlier. All of the classic signs summer is ending are here. If you’ve ever summered in Bethany Beach and witnessed their breathtaking sunsets, you can understand why coming to terms with the end of summer is so difficult. From the culinary delights along the boardwalk to the pristine beaches and miniature golf, nothing compares to Bethany Beach. In fact, during the summer months, it’s been reported that over 15,000 people visit the beach town. Instead of mourning the end of the beloved season, Bethany Beach celebrates with The Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral. The beach town’s farewell to summer is celebrated each Labor Day Monday.
Celebrated since 1985, this quirky tradition is a spectacle you don’t want to miss. The event was founded by Bethany Beach Town Councilman, Moss Wagner, who was inspired by the Jazz Funerals held in New Orleans. In New Orleans, when someone passes away, the person’s family and friends fill the streets with music and celebrate their life. There is dancing, music and everyone is encouraged to join in on the celebration. The tradition dates back 400 years to West Africa, which began as slaves were sold and brought into America in the 1600s. In West Africa, it is believed that the celebration after death will protect the deceased and please the spirits. Jazz funerals traditionally were reserved for musicians or well-known figures, but today, they’re held for people of all ages and classes. It wasn’t until the 18th century and the rising popularity of brass bands and jazz music when jazz funerals truly took off. Wagner was honored at the 2005 Jazz Funeral for creating the event. Instead of Bethany Beach becoming a ghost town immediately after the Labor Day holiday, the Jazz Funeral keeps businesses bustling and vacationers in the area.
Three New Orleans-style bands contribute to the festival, including the Jazz Funeral Irregulars, the Dixie Cats and the Downtown Dixieland Band. They provide the entertainment as a procession takes place down the boardwalk with a casket and mannequin representing summer. A tuba alerts the crowd that the event is beginning, followed by the parade marching to traditionally somber hymns and songs, including “Amazing Grace.” When the procession ends at the bandstand, the bands perform “God Bless America” and short speeches are given.
Bethany Beach is proud to donate funds from the Jazz Funeral’s silent auction to a different charity each year. This year, the charity of choice is the Sussex County Habitat for Humanity.
Whether you’re watching the event from the sidelines or want to take part in the celebration, you won’t have a hard time finding the mourners, who dress in dark sunglasses, black clothing, and carry flowers. Some parade attendees take it a step further and drape their faces in black veils.
You don’t need to travel to Louisiana to experience a jazz funeral. The Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral will take place on Monday, September 2, 2019, at 5:30 p.m. on the Bethany Beach boardwalk.