On Labor Day of 1985, former town councilman Moss Wagner created the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral to commemorate the end of the summer season. This year, the annual mock-funeral will take place in downtown Bethany Beach on Sept. 4, Labor Day, and will begin at 5:30 p.m. at the north end of the boardwalk.
The event has become a tradition, running now for 32 years. The Jazz Funeral has stayed relatively true to its roots over the past three decades, even though the town’s lifeguards are no longer allowed to strip off their suits and run naked into the ocean at the end of the procession as part of their own informal celebration.
“The event is a celebration at the end of the summer to ‘bid a fond farewell’ to the traditional summer season,” said Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral Executive Director and Chairman Paul Jankovic.
Jankovic said that during the procession, participants in the parade walk alongside a casket that contained a mannequin that represented that year’s summer season, and the walkers are joined by Dixieland bands that travel alongside the casket.
The bands this year, according to Jankovic, will be three bands combined into one. The conglomerate will include the Dixie Cats, the Downtown Dixieland Band and the Jazz Funeral Irregulars. During the procession, he said, the music played has been known to start off having a somber mood and then at the end, when the casket reached the bandstand, become upbeat, Dixieland-style music.
Jankovic said a large part of the event is dressing up. Some people come in costumes consisting of black shrouds and dark sunglasses. Some participants carry flower bouquets and wreaths to further the funeral experience and also give the event a comedic twist.
“The Jazz Funeral is a lighthearted celebration that allows all those who attend to participate and become part of a ‘just for fun’ boardwalk parade,” Jankovic said.
Despite the event revolving around a rather morose theme, Jankovic said it is supposed to be a light and celebratory event. He said that Bethany Beach and New Orleans are actually the only two localities in the United States that have traditional annual jazz funerals. The formation of a somber observance into a more celebratory occasion is what inspired Wagner to create the event.
Jankovic also said the Jazz Funeral has been one of the longest-running celebrations of its kind amongst the resort towns in Delaware. The event grew from a small-scale parade and party, planned by Wagner, into a town-wide festivity.
“The Jazz Funeral has become a ‘quirky’ tradition in Bethany Beach enjoyed by about 2,000 people each year,” he added.
At the conclusion of the parade on the bandstand, after the Dixieland music is finished, speakers will get the chance to reflect on this past summer’s high points. This year’s official Jazz Funeral host, Liane Hansen, will be announcing the speakers.
On top of the procession itself, for the past 12 years, a silent auction has been held on the Friday before the Jazz Funeral. This year, the auction will take place at Bethany Blues on Sept. 1 from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The proceeds this year will go to the Delmarva Chapter of the American Red Cross.
“The goal of the Jazz Funeral fund-raising activities is to help the American Red Cross of Delmarva, who assists the residents of the local communities with emergency and preventive services,” Jankovic said.
Bob Rhodunda, regional philanthropy officer for the American Red Cross’s Delmarva Chapter said early this week that, in light of the need produced by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Red Cross volunteers would be available to accept donations at the Jazz Funeral Silent Auction on Friday and may be passing red buckets at Monday’s event to accept cash or check donations.
“This storm, albeit not even over yet, has passed the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and could reach Hurricane Katrina magnitude if the storm continues to sit,” Rhodunda said.