Two Funerals in the Crescent City Commentator Jason Berry attended two funerals in the past week and describes them and the mood in New Orleans.
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Two Funerals in the Crescent City

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Two Funerals in the Crescent City

Two Funerals in the Crescent City

Two Funerals in the Crescent City

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Commentator Jason Berry attended two funerals in the past week and describes them and the mood in New Orleans.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Jason Berry attended the march in New Orleans today. He also spent the last week attending two funerals for people he knew who died in New Orleans. For him, the homicides and funerals seem to emphasize the extreme devastation - both physical and emotional - that the city has to bear.

JASON BERRY: Today's march on city hall by protesters enraged about the crime wave in New Orleans was not a parade of joy. There was little music. But the crowd was a true mirror of the city's social mosaic, and we all knew what we wanted: to stop the violence and heal the wounds.

I was heartened as people cheered, music in the schools, music in the schools. Brass-band funerals are a life force here, a send off carrying the promise of a more lyrical world to come. Last week, I attended two jazz funerals, two lives to mourn in a city grieving over its own fate.

Tad Jones(ph), 54, died in an accident over New Year's. He was a writer working on a book about Louis Armstrong. About 150 of us sat with his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. People cried quietly during the mass.

Then we went out into warm winter sunlight. A dozen musicians escorted the hearse down a lane of stately tombs, playing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," as slowly-rising rhythms coated the sorrow with tenderness. After final prayers at the crypt, the band let out a swinging version of "Didn't He Ramble," announcing the beauty of a life well lived.

The next day's service, at Fifth African Baptist, was for Dinerral Shavers, 25, a snare drummer with the Hot 8 brass band. He died of a bullet in the head while driving his family. Police arrested a high-school student who allegedly had had a beef with Shavers' stepson but shot the wrong guy. As he was led to jail, TV cameras showed the boy claiming innocence.

The overflow service ran long with cathartic wails of the young widow and sobbing kids from the school where Shavers was a band teacher. The suffering was as close as someone breathing. A larger sense of waste and anger coursed through the city, half the size since Hurricane Katrina. Everyone knows the police department is in disarray.

A young filmmaker, Helen Hill, was shot dead in her home by an intruder. Her husband, a doctor who worked with the poor, took three bullets, yet miraculously survived. Their 2-year-old was unharmed. The father left the city, vowing never to return. Who can blame him?

At the funeral for the Hot 8 drummer, the pallbearers put the casket into an ancient buggy hearse, led by a horse and driver as an army of musicians played "Lord, Lord, Lord," a thumping gospel song with roaring trumpets that galvanized the crowd.

About a thousand people swelled around the players, gyrating along scarred streets still lined with storm debris. As the band broke into a charging parade song, the dancers surged with throat-rattling cries that seemed as much a plea to heaven for a broken city and a people betrayed as for that young drummer whose photograph was emblazoned on T-shirts worn by many of the mourners as they danced.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Jason Berry is the author of the book "Last of the Red Hot Poppas." He lives and works in New Orleans.

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A Murder Shakes Confidence in New Orleans

A Murder Shakes Confidence in New Orleans

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Helen Hill and her husband Paul Gailiunas returned to New Orleans last summer. Family Photo hide caption

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Family Photo

Filmmaker Helen Hill was murdered in New Orleans last week. Her death has undermined hope for the city's future. David Koen, a writer, attorney and her friend, attended her funeral Wednesday.

My dear friend Helen Hill has left the city she loved.

Last week, Helen was shot and killed by an intruder. Her husband Paul huddled over their young son, saving his life, while the gunman fired bullet after bullet into him.

Helen was emblematic of New Orleans — a radiant bundle of energy, creativity and good cheer.

She was an award-winning filmmaker. Paul joked that he was probably the only doctor ever supported by an artist spouse. Before Katrina, he ran the Little Doctor's Neighborhood Clinic in Treme, an old Creole neighborhood. He served anyone who walked in the door.

He and Helen made a genuine commitment to New Orleans and its people — to take care of the poor, to put a little sparkle in someone's day.

Their house took on four feet of water in Katrina. They spent a year in exile in South Carolina. Paul had had it with New Orleans, with the violence and the terrible neglect that drowned the city. But Helen needed New Orleans, and New Orleans needed her.

Last summer, Paul, Helen, and their son came back to town. Last week, I stood in front of their home, before the altar that has grown by the front steps. Dozens of candles, bouquets and handwritten notes lined the walk.

I can't tell you how guilty I feel. I had repeatedly told Paul the violence of New Orleans was nothing to be scared of. Now Helen is gone, and Paul probably is out of here for good.

I found an old e-mail from Helen, written a week after Hurricane Katrina: "There's no other place I can imagine being... but what will New Orleans be like now?"

Helen, I'll tell you what it's like. Our friends are cowering in their homes, and they're asking themselves these questions: Should I get a gun? Should I get a dog? Should I leave New Orleans?

Because I've got to tell you, Helen, your death feels like the final straw.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, the federal government left us to die like dogs in front of the Superdome and the Convention Center. Hundreds of thousands of people are still not back in their homes, partly because the state hasn't given out all the grant money to rebuild. We still don't have Category 5 hurricane levee protection.

There are signs everywhere that used to state, "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Now they've been reduced to the shorthand, "Enough!" New Orleans is dying, ya'll. Helen, do you think anyone is listening?