Saturday, December 4, 2010

I'm With The Band

Nan and I were playing backyard tourists 50 miles from my home, exploring the funky streets and alleyways of Chinatown and pretending I got a great deal haggling over a pair of binoculars that I later found cheaper on Amaon. While we were debating the medicinal value of dried ox testicles ($150/oz) , I was drawn out to the street by the tight rattling sound of Chinese drums (expected) and trombones (certainly not expected) in a weird cacophonic tune that sounded an awful lot like “Nearer My God to Thee”.

Slowly winding its way up Grant Avenue was a strange funeral procession-part Salvation Army, part New Orleans jazz band, leading a hearse and red mustang convertible displaying a huge picture of the recently passed on. Family and friends were walking behind throwing bits of paper, or Spirit money, into the crowd.

As the procession snaked through the throngs of people, everything stopped. I turned around and saw shop owners come out to the street, tourists stopped chatting on cell phones and window gawking, hats were removed and for a few minutes we all became mourners ourselves, respectfully acknowledging a stranger’s last mile.

When I got home I had to find out who or what this band was. This hodgepodge, almost pick up band, was a San Francisco staple for the dearly departed. Formed in 1911 and originally called the Cathay Chinese Boys Band, it played at almost every major event in the city; important funerals, Chinese New Years, the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge and the 1939 Worlds Fair. In the 1940s the San Francisco Musicians Union Local No.6, convinced the Chinatown mortuaries to hire union musicians to play for the funeral processions. As the mortuaries closed the local Chinese started taking their business over to Green Street Mortuary in Little Italy. The band became The Green Street Mortuary Band and continues to play hymns and dirges for more than 300 Chinatown funeral processions a year.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a great poem about them:

The Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
marches right down Green Street
and turns into Columbus Avenue
where all the café sitters at
the sidewalk café tables
sit talking and laughing
and looking right through it
as if it happened every day in
little old wooden North Beach San Francisco
but at the same time feeling thrilled
by the stirring sound of the gallant marching band
as if it were celebrating life and
never heard of death
And right behind it comes the open hearse
with the closed casket and the
big framed picture under glass propped up
showing the patriarch who
has just croaked
And now all seven members of
the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band
with the faded gold braid on their
beat-up captains' hats
raise their bent axes and
start blowing all more or less
together and
out comes this Onward Christian Soldiers like
you heard it once upon a time only
much slower with a dead beat
And now you see all the relatives behind the
closed glass windows of the long black cars and
their faces are all shiny like they
been weeping with washcloths and
all super serious
like as if the bottom has just dropped out of
their private markets and
there's the widow all in weeds, and the sister with the
bent frame and the mad brother who never got through school
and Uncle Louie with the wig and there they all are assembled
together and facing each other maybe for the first time in a long
time but their masks and public faces are all in place as they face
outward behind the traveling corpse up ahead and oompah oompah
goes the band very slow with the trombones and the tuba
and the trumpets and the big bass drum and the corpse hears
nothing or everything and it's a glorious autumn day in old
North Beach if only he could have lived to see it Only we
wouldn't have had the band who half an hour later can be seen
straggling back silent along the sidewalks looking like hungover
brokendown Irish bartenders dying for a drink or a last hurrah....

If you’re dying to learn more about The Green Street Mortuary Band and other interesting death rituals, check out The Daily Undertaker at

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of parading with a marching band parade a block or two on my birthday when I get older. That way I can have fun. I would want a salsa, a ragtime, or something quite lively for my funeral procession. I wonder if that's possible to do around here.