‘Exactly what he would have wanted’: Funeral home owner Armand Charbonnet buried in style

July 22, 2015
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Article Originally appeared on the New Orleans Advocate

For 132 years, Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home has made a name for itself in the Treme neighborhood by ensuring that families — even those who weren’t sure how they could pay for it — saw their loved ones buried in style.

On Monday, the family-owned institution laid to rest one of its own, sending off co-owner Armand Charbonnet with a church service and jazz funeral that resounded with the traditions his own career helped carry forward for generations.

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At a Mass at St. Raymond-St. Leo the Great Catholic Church, Charbonnet lay in a black and gold bronze casket. He was honored by the Crescent City Funeral Directors’ Association, and City Councilman Jared Brossett read a proclamation in his honor.

The church echoed with the sound of a muted trumpet playing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and later a powerful rendition of “Ave Maria” sung by Deacon John.

Just after 1 p.m., a horse-drawn hearse topped with the funeral home’s “coupe de fleur” carried Charbonnet in a mahogany casket on a 2-mile journey up North Claiborne and Esplanade avenues to the family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, with the joyfully raucous second-line that accompanied it drawing onlookers and participants the whole way.

“This is exactly what he would have wanted,” younger brother and funeral home co-owner Louis Charbonnet III said as the procession turned into the cemetery and the band transitioned from songs including “Hey Pocky A-Way” and “We Will Walk Through the Streets of the City” to a traditional jazz funeral dirge.

The proceedings were officially handled by members of the local funeral directors, embalmers and morticians associations. But it all happened under the watchful eye and guiding hand of Louis Charbonnet.

“He directed the funeral from the pew today,” Louis’ daughter Kim Charbonnet said. “It’s a personal pilgrimage for him.”

Kim said she saw a few glimpses of sadness on her father’s face as he greeted scores of well-wishers throughout the day and helped make sure the brother who was always by his side got a traditional jazz funeral for the ages.

She said her father almost wore black for the occasion, a habit of decades in the business, but instead wore the traditional white that family members wear.

“I said, ‘Daddy, we’re on the other side now,’ ” she said.

“It’s quite different,” Louis Charbonnet confessed during visitation Monday morning. “We’re used to caring for people, but now the shoe’s on the other foot, basically. It’s difficult. It’s a strange feeling. I buried my mother and my father, but my brother and I worked together every day — every day — for the last 55 years.”

He said Armand, who died July 9 at age 84, always supported him and helped their father back at the family business when Louis III got his funeral director’s license, when he went to school and when he served in the state Legislature.

“He’s always supported me,” he said. “It’s been an awesome journey. He will truly be missed.”

Nephew and pallbearer Perry Franklin, who now lives in Baton Rouge, said the two brothers were inseparable.

“If you saw one, you saw the other,” he said, adding that they always knew success was rooted in supporting the community.

“They were the kind of people where if you didn’t have the money, they’d bury you in style and you’d come back and worry about the money later,” he said.

Franklin and others noted how Armand Charbonnet fought for the neighborhood, opposing the construction of an elevated expressway over North Claiborne Avenue and the demolition of several blocks of homes for the creation of Armstrong Park.

“He was like an oracle,” singer Yvette Spears said. “He was like a historian for Treme. Whatever you needed to know, he had a story to tell.”

Charbonnet-managed funerals managed to take what could be a joyless occasion and make it joyful, respecting the solemnity of the passing of a loved one without wallowing in sadness, said Spears, who was one of many performers who took part in a two-hour musical tribute by Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra the day before.

Gina Charbonnet, one of Armand’s three daughters, said her father told them in the weeks before he died that he wanted his funeral to be a joyful occasion.

He said, “I want you all to be happy.”

Moments later, word that the procession and second-line were starting made it into the funeral home lobby on St. Philip Street. Someone handed Gina an ice-cold Budweiser, and she and the others raced out the door.

As the procession made its way along Claiborne Avenue, onlookers began to gather and cheer. After turning onto Esplanade, the dancing intensified.

Gina climbed onto the casket; Kim later took the reins.

At North Broad Street, several people lay down on the ground and rolled through the intersection.

Although it had rained a little during the Mass, there wasn’t a drop during the procession.

Passing North Galvez Street, a woman spotted Louis walking with family and friends.

“That’s Mr. Charbonnet with the white on, right there,” she called out.

As the procession wound to a close, John Beckwith, of Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas, who came in to help organize things, mused about the day’s proceedings.

“There’s no way in the world we could have pulled this off there” in Dallas, he said. “We couldn’t even shut down the streets this long.”

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