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Green Street Mortuary Band: Paying the rent by scaring off ghosts

It’s a chilly morning in San Francisco, and a funeral is starting.

On the street in front of a North Beach mortuary, a brass band lines up, getting their sheet music ready and pulling on their trademark gold-braided, white ship captains’ hats.  

Meet the Green Street Mortuary Band.  Every weekend, rain or shine, they march in military formation through the streets of San Francisco, playing dirge-like Christian hymns for Chinese funerals. None of the members is Chinese.

This is a union gig, and the band attracts professional musicians from all over the Bay Area. ZacariahSpellman is playing sousaphone at today’s funeral. He normally plays tuba for the San Francisco Opera.

“This is a sacred thing that we’re doing here, trying to offer some comfort to the families who are suffering right now,” says Spellman.  “But also to recognize that this is a natural process to the community, when they see this band, a lot these people they see this band going up and down the streets all the time. They know what’s going on.”

Funeral bands are an ancient Chinese tradition. The music keeps the spirit of the newly deceased close to the body until burial. Hiring a band is also a way for the family to show their status, and to announce the passing of a community member.

In the early 1900’s, that tradition took on it’s own particular San Francisco flavor. A group of young Chinese immigrants heard an Italian marching band parading through their neighborhood. They wanted to learn to play, too, and formed their own band.

By the 1960’s, the band had become a steady-paying gig that everybody wanted in on.

Out on the street, mortuary workers on motorcycles rev up to guide the procession through traffic. Spellman hefts his sousaphone onto his shoulders.

“I hope you’ll enjoy the music,” he says. “There’s some pretty mean cats playing today.

For professional musicians, the Green Street Mortuary Band is one of the most coveted gigs in town. It’s on the weekends, it’s during the day, and it’s steady work. There are at least two or three funerals every weekend of the year.

Darren Johnston is a jazz trumpet player and band leader in San Francisco says the gig provides a substantial percentage of his income.

“There’s months where work is really slow and then there’s a bunch of funerals, and I’m very thankful for them,” says Johnston.

The band begins their solemn march. Family members in a black convertible hold up a large photo of the deceased, framed with brightly colored flowers. Next comes the hearse, followed by long lines of mourners in their cars.

The procession leaves North Beach and moves through Chinatown’s densely packed streets.  Tourists take pictures. People peer out the windows of city buses. Some men remove their baseball caps.

“They think, oh my gosh we're in Chinatown here comes a parade!” says Cindy Collins, a trumpeter who plays classical music with the Oakland Civic Orchestra.

We round a corner, getting ready to climb one of San Francisco’s famously steep hills.

“You'll be a full-fledged band member once we get up there,” jokes Collins.

We’ve changed direction slightly so we can pass by the house of the deceased. It’s a common ritual, a last visit meant to help the spirit transition from this world and into the next.                

“They’re going to throw the paper money in the air,” whispers Collins. “It’s just a beautiful sight.”

It’s called “buying the road,”--a diversion for unfriendly ghosts, and a way for family to provide for the material needs of their dead ancestor in the spirit world.

At the end of gig, some of the musicians sip beers back at the Irish bar that sits right across the street from the funeral home.

Collins says the job has given them a sense of camaraderie that’s hard to beat.

“I never thought I’d say that I prefer a funeral band to a symphony orchestra, but there’s something about this band… even though it comes from a sad moment, it’s this triumphant moment for the person who’s going on and we’re sharing that with the community. What gets better than that?” she says.

If you’re in San Francisco, you can see the band most weekends, either leading a funeral, or, having a Guinness after it’s over.

This story originally aired in 2009. To listen, please click on the audio player above.

Crosscurrents Music