'Uncle' Lionel Batiste gets sendoff as unique as the man himself
Blues guitarist Little Freddie King and his drummer/manager, “Wack-O” Wade Wright, stood outside the Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home in Treme on Thursday afternoon, pondering the scene inside for “Uncle” Lionel Batiste’s wake. “They’ve got him fixed up beautiful,” King said of the deceased Treme Brass Band drummer and renowned New Orleans character.
Wade agreed. “They’ve even got his watch on the mannequin’s hand,” he said, referring to the life-like figure standing in the funeral home’s chapel.
That wasn’t a mannequin, King replied. “That’s him."
In a send-off as unique as the man himself, Mr. Batiste wasn’t lying in his cypress casket. Instead, his body was propped against a faux street lamp, standing, decked out in his signature man-about-town finery.
He wore a cream sport coat, beige slacks, tasseled loafers, ornate necktie and matching pocket square, bowler hat and sunglasses. His bass drum and his Treme Brass Band uniform were positioned nearby.
His hands rested atop his omnipresent cane. The gold watch spanning his left palm was his trademark, representing his desire to always have “time on my hands.”
His head was cocked slightly to the left. He appeared ready to step from behind the velvet rope and saunter off to Frenchmen Street, where he reveled in dancing and drinking beer.
“He looks better today than when I saw him the Thursday before he died,” said Storyville Stompers tuba player Woody Penouilh. “Heaven is agreeing with him.”
Several of Mr. Batiste’s children, in consultation with Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion owner Louis Charbonnet, concocted the idea of standing him up for his wake.
Lionel Batiste Jr. says he made a promise to his father. “I told him, ‘I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to send you off good.’ That’s the kind of guy he was. He had to be an original.”
Thus, the wake was literally Mr. Batiste’s last stand.
During his 50 years in the funeral business, Louis Charbonnet had never before embalmed a body in such a life-like pose. After studying pictures of Mr. Batiste – who preferred to be photographed standing up -- and considering various poses, he and the children decided Mr. Batiste should be on his feet, sans casket.
“You have to think outside the box,” Charbonnet said. “And so he’s outside the box. We didn’t want him to be confined to his casket.”
Charbonnet declined to share the “trade secrets” of how the effect was achieved. “Five or six of my competitors have been through today, asking how we did it,” he said. “It was a challenge.”
The dramatic result resonated with the hundreds of mourners who viewed the body Thursday.
Ernie K-Doe, the late rhythm & blues singer best known for his hit “Mother-in-Law,” was famously replicated as an eerily realistic mannequin. Eight years after K-Doe’s death, the mannequin attended the 2009 funeral of his widow, Antoinette.
But Mr. Batiste’s actual-body-as-mannequin was something else entirely.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Nancy Ochsenschlager, who, in the decades she spent as an associate producer of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, befriended countless musicians. “Leave it to Unc. He was completely unique. So this makes sense.”
Funeral home employee Aaron Garrison said that a cab driver stopped by en route to Louis Armstrong International Airport. After describing the body’s presentation, his fare, a woman bound for Philadelphia, got out to see for herself.
“She said, ‘Where’s his body?’ ‘That’s him standing over there.’ She thought that was wax. I said, ‘No, that’s him. The real person.’”
Warren Woods, who met Mr. Batiste soon after moving to New Orleans in 1980, believes that a body lying in a casket is actually more “unnatural.” “Very rarely do you see a (living) person laying down. It’s more natural to view somebody standing up.”
After learning that the figure was the real deal and not a mannequin, Wright went back inside the funeral home to view Mr. Batiste again.
“I was looking for him to move,” said King, who first met Mr. Batiste 38 years ago at the Caledonia club in Treme. “That’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s perfect. It’s a wonderful, strange thing.”
Mr. Batiste’s commemoration has been ongoing since he died on July 8 of cancer at age 80. Impromptu and scheduled second-lines and concerts have taken place throughout Treme and beyond.
The formal commemoration continues Friday with a viewing from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, followed by a funeral service at 11 a.m. and then a jazz second-line procession.
Mr. Batiste is expected to be inside his casket for Friday’s events.
On Thursday, the scene outside the funeral home grew increasing festive, despite threatening clouds. A brass band aggregation struck up on the corner of St. Philip and North Claiborne under the elevated Interstate 10. A crowd coalesced and spilled into North Claiborne, briefly blocking traffic.
Scores of friends, fellow musicians, neighborhood associates and curious onlookers milled around. Beer and barbecue were available for purchase. A man advertised an autographed copy of the 2010 Jazz Fest Congo Square poster depicting Mr. Batiste for $500. Another offered copies of The Boulevard, a free Central City publication, depicting Mr. Batiste on its cover for $3.
At 5 p.m., as the viewing wound down, a brass band led by trombonist Corey Henry paraded into the funeral home’s chapel. As the musicians raised their horns in an uptempo gospel medley, family members and fellow mourners commenced dancing.
As more mourners packed into the chapel, a pedestrian traffic jam ensued. The crowd pressed against the velvet rope, behind which Mr. Batiste’s body stoically observed the scene. In response to Henry’s razzing trombone, the dancers shouted “Hey!” and thrust their hands skyward.
By the time a second brass band made a pass, everyone in the chapel was standing up.
Including Mr. Batiste.
Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter at KeithSperaTP.
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