NEW ORLEANS (AP) — If he had died in a normal time, Larry Arthur Hammond would have had a funeral befitting a Zulu king, with more than a thousand mourners in the church and marching in second-line parades celebrating a mainstay of New Orleans Mardi Gras royalty.
Instead, only 10 people were allowed into the funeral parlor, his widow grieving from a socially distanced chair while family and friends strained to hear through cell phones on speaker mode. Hundreds of close-knit members of his century-old parade group and African American fraternity were prevented from honoring one of their leaders, weeks after he died of COVID-19.
It seemed cruel, how this virus that summoned them to mourn was keeping them apart. The masks his wife and daughter wore to protect each other muffled their weeping. Nobody could see a smile; nobody could hug.
“Only having 10 family members was so hurting to me because we have such a large, loving family,” said his wife, Lillian Hammond.
But improvisation is integral to the jazz culture of New Orleans, and improvise they did.
After the funeral, scores of cars and trucks passed the Hammond home as the family sat in chairs on their front lawn, still dressed in their funeral attire. A police escort led the procession.
Honking, waving and calling to his family, drivers and passengers showed their respect and love for the 2007 king of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a retired postal worker and Air Force veteran who tutored, mentored and provided Christmas presents through Omega Psi Phi.
“I was so pleased. I was amazed. I was excited and not just excited for my family, but excited for Larry, because their procession, that motorcade was him,” Lillian Hammond said.
The Zulu club, as with African Americans nationwide, has been particularly hard-hit by this virus, to which humans have no natural immunity. At least eight of its 800 members have died of COVID-19, according to its board chairman, City Councilman Jay H. Banks. African Americans represent more than 56% of Louisiana’s 1,670 coronavirus deaths, the state public health department reported Sunday.
Larry Hammond, 70, died on March 31. If not for the pandemic, which delayed his funeral until April 22, he would have received “past-king” honors, with massive second-line tributes organized by the Zulus and his fraternity brothers, marching behind his casket with brass bands playing dirges and then breaking out into Dixieland jazz, celebrating his ascension to heaven.
“There would have been thousands of people there, I can say that without qualification,” said Banks, who dressed in crisp white for the procession because he was King Zulu in 2016. “It’s the funeral of a king, you don’t get any higher than that.”
The loneliness of the sparse funeral parlor seemed grievous by comparison.
Lillian Hammond’s daughter, wearing a cloth mask and protective blue gloves, embraced her as she wept. Beside his open casket, an easel bore his portrait, wearing the white suit of Zulu kings. Another portrait was in the waiting area, with a bottle of hand sanitizer and a sign: “Please sanitize your hands before signing the guest book.”
“I am so happy that Larry’s in a better place,” Lillian Hammond said. “I want to say to all of you, we don’t know what’s going on with this coronavirus but please take it serious. And make sure that every day that you say something about the Lord and bless your family.”
It was a much warmer setting in their front yard that afternoon, where Lillian, her daughter Nicole and her sister Lori Adams were joined by his granddaughter, Kailyn Hammond Gouch. People in cars and trucks rolled slowly by for about 15 minutes, waving, calling out and holding handmade signs and memorabilia.
Hammond said she recognized people from Zulu, the fraternity, the neighborhood, the school where her husband tutored students for standardized tests, and from outside the New Orleans area. As the last car drove past, the family applauded.
Barry Hammond said his brother was a giver who saw the value in helping others and bringing people together. He hopes Americans will reach similar conclusions, since the pandemic has shown that we’re all human beings first, undivided by race or politics.
“We are all in this together. Corona has proven this,” he said. “My prayer is the virus causes us to reunite as a country.”