A summer draws to a close in Bethany Beach and a fall chill creeps into the air, it is time to mourn the passing of another summer season, with jazz, of course. For almost 25 years, residents and visitors alike have gathered on Labor Day Monday to bid farewell to summer in New Orleans fashion. To some locals, such as Patsy Dill Rankin, who owns Patsy’s Restaurant in downtown Bethany, the Jazz Funeral has become a cherished tradition.
“I remember when Moss Wagner first started the funeral up,” said Rankin. “Back then, once Labor Day hit, everything was closed. Nobody was in town, so all the shops would be closing up after the season. Moss wanted to have some fun so he put together this little group and we threw a party.
“There might have been 15 or 20 of us back then, and we’d get a little crazy and celebrate. We’d parade a block or so around town, then pop a bottle of champagne and have some drinks. The next thing you know the event had exploded,” she recalled. “Now we probably get thousands of people in town for the afternoon.”
The event has quickly become a popular celebration among locals. In fact, it now draws so many people into town that many businesses stay open especially for the event.
“I actually haven’t been able to parade in the last few Funerals,” Rankin explained, “because we’ve gotten so busy here at the restaurant. The last time I closed for it, we had people lined up to get in when we got back.”
Although there is no required attire for the event, some unusual outfits and characters have been known to show up.
“It’s a celebration, so people like to have fun,” Rankin added. “People show up in all black. The ladies wear veils and pretend to weep and faint. We throw dead flowers around, pass out tissues, and generally make a big show of it all. One year, we even had Santa Claus show up; which didn’t really fit the theme, but what the heck? It’s just a crazy time… you really can’t explain it.”
During the event, a faux casket, complete with a mock corpse and champagne, is carried down the boardwalk while jazz bands play Dixieland music.
“Typically, we would end the procession at the bandstand, where a eulogy for the summer is read,” Rankin explained. “The women gather around with feathered masks and sob. It’s absolutely hysterical, and it just starts to grow on you.”
Since Moss Wagner’s move to Crested Butte, Colo., the event has been spearheaded by Paul Jankovic. Each year, there is also a charity fundraiser associated with the Jazz Funeral, sponsored by Bethany business owners. This year’s fundraising recipient, Habitat for Humanity, has helped to build homes throughout Sussex County.
As in recent years, a silent auction will also be held at Bethany Blues restaurant on the Friday before Labor Day, Sept. 4, from 3 to 5 p.m. to benefit the organization. There will be light refreshments, and music provided by The Dixie Cats, the Downtown Dixieland Band and The Jazz Funeral Irregulars – the three bands that will escort the casket during the procession. It is expected that for Monday’s festivities, they will have more than 20 instruments combined!
“It’s just a great way to send off the summer,” said Rankin. “You never know what to expect, and it’s always a lot of fun.”
The procession will begin at the north end of the boardwalk, around 5:30 p.m., although people begin lining the boards well in advance. After the parade, there will be presentations and comments given by some familiar faces around town. There is no cost to attend, and plenty of enjoyment guaranteed. Who knows, you might even meet Santa Claus or Batman?