Two weeks ago, to honor his older brother, Louis Charbonnet III hung a black wreath on the door of his house. It’s a traditional symbol of mourning, rarely seen today.
Yet the traditionalist approach fits Armand Charbonnet, a scion of the family who runs the Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home, who died July 9 at 84.
On Sunday and Monday, his family will host an elaborate traditional funeral, complete with a level of pomp and circumstance that’s rarely seen anymore, even in New Orleans.
“We’re doing it the old-fashioned way,” said Louis Charbonnet III, 76, who has long helped his older brother run the family business, which has been around for 132 years and is ranked as the country’s 11th-oldest continuously operated African-American funeral home.
Once common in New Orleans and across the nation, family-owned funeral homes have dwindled over the past generation, with most becoming part of national corporate enterprises.
For decades, Armand Charbonnet was crucial to keeping the funeral home within the family, especially after his father, Louis Charbonnet Jr., grew ill and needed help running the business. His devotion to the business allowed his younger brother Louis to go off to school and then embark upon a political career.
That generous spirit prevailed even when the two were children and Armand would take Louis and his friends to baseball games and other events. “He was the ultimate big brother,” Louis said.
As they grew into adults, it became clear that one of them should go to school to become a licensed funeral director. “You do it. I’ll be here,” Armand said. And in the early 1970s, when community leaders came to the Charbonnet family to ask if one of them would run for office, Armand suggested Louis.
“He’s been the wind beneath my wings, lifting me up all my life,” Louis said.
Yet Armand had strong political opinions of his own. Like his younger brother, he fought the city’s plans to build the elevated Interstate 10 down the middle of North Claiborne Avenue and to tear down blocks of Treme to create what is now Armstrong Park.
Up to his final days, he was able to recall detailed stories about every shop on the once grand stretch of North Claiborne between Canal Street and St. Bernard Avenue. He could talk for hours about places like Delarose Brothers Shoe Repair, Latica’s Notion Store, Belfield Pharmacy and Venus Insurance.
This weekend pays tribute to Armand Charbonnet and the traditions he loved. Because he liked big-band music, the Sunday night wake will feature a 17-piece jazz orchestra led by Delfeayo Marsalis plus singers Michaela Harrison and Yvette Spears.
On Monday, the funeral will begin with an early morning visitation at the funeral home on St. Philip Street in Treme. Though it is now common practice, Armand Charbonnet never got used to visitations that were simply held at a church before a service.
The family will then proceed in a cortege to St. Leo the Great Church on Paris Avenue, where a priest will be waiting at the door to bless the body as pallbearers carry in a stunning bronze casket — colored black and gold because Armand Charbonnet was a Saints fan.
After the funeral Mass, the family and the automotive hearse will return to St. Philip Street. Because metal caskets can’t be used in New Orleans tombs, the funeral directors will switch the body to a solid mahogany casket set onto an open hearse.
All of this befits their profession, Louis Charbonnet said: “He was a funeral home owner. I wouldn’t put my brother in any everyday casket.”
The family will then walk about a mile with the horse-drawn hearse to the Charbonnet family tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 on Esplanade Avenue. The hearse will be escorted by one of the day’s two traditional brass bands and the funeral home’s distinctive “coupe de fleur,” a hearse topped with flowers. No other undertaker in New Orleans has a coupe de fleur, but Armand Charbonnet insisted on owning one because he liked the traditional look of it.
While the Charbonnet family is carefully planning every detail of the weekend, the Crescent City Funeral Directors Association has offered to direct the events so the family will be able to grieve.
“We have to have time, like everyone else, to mourn, to lament,” Louis Charbonnet said.