Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home has been a pillar of the Treme neighborhood for generations. Founded in 1883 by members of Myrtle Z. Labat’s family, it is now operated by Louis Charbonnet III. This facility was almost destroyed by fire in 1958, and flooded after the levee failures in 2005, but it was renovated each time and remains as vital as ever. Though urban renewal, years of disinvestment, and the flood have made living in Treme difficult for many African-American families, thousands still return here to celebrate traditional “homegoings” for loved ones who grew up in the area.
The Charbonnet legacy in Treme and in the music community runs deep. The Charbonnets were vocal opponents of the construction of the Interstate 10 overpass on Claiborne Avenue in the 1960s, which ultimately destroyed blocks of tree-lined green space. Louis Charbonnet III, the current head of the funeral home, is a former state representative. He’s an advocate for local culture who opens the doors to the Society of Inseparable Friends Hall for community meetings and parties. After a notorious incident in 2007 when New Orleans police officers aggressively disbanded a memorial for the tuba player Kerwin James, he helped broker an agreement between the NOPD and the brass band community.
The funeral home’s reception area has seen innumerable musical tributes to deceased artists, many with full, amplified bands. Bereaved musicians are known to come with their instruments in hand to play in honor of the departed. Along with spirituals, they often include songs the deceased was known for performing. Mardi Gras Indians are mourned with the prayerful standard “Indian Red,” and processions including tambourines and other percussion instruments.
Charbonnet’s funeral home maintains the staff and equipment necessary for traditional jazz funerals. This includes a horse-drawn hearse, which has glass sides to make the casket visible. Legendary bandleaders like Ernest “Doc” Paulin and Harold “Duke” Dejan were feted this way, as were many others who wanted their passing observed in the traditional manner. Mr. Charbonnet added a new twist to the practice in 2012 when, at the wake for beloved bass drummer and vocalist “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, he stood the body of the deceased upright, in a suit, with a hat and a cane.
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, Creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”
The scene outside Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home for the 2012 funeral of beloved artist and bon vivant "Uncle" Lionel Batiste, from NewOrleansUnplugged.
"Just A Closer Walk With Thee," a jazz funeral standard, from Glen David Andrews' live CD "Walking Through Heaven's Gate," recorded August 18th, 2008 and released January 19th, 2009 on Threadhead Records.