This weekend in New Orleans was Jazz Fest and we know about jazz funerals, but what about ‘extreme embalming’ funerals?
The wake last month of New Orleans socialite Mickey Easterling, who reportedly used to ride around town with friends in a Bentley (or was it a Rolls Royce?) with a trunk full of iced champagne, was the Crescent City’s second example of extreme embalming. This raises the question, who is New Orleans most extremely embalmed corpse, the Lakefront grande dame, or the Treme Brass Band drummer?
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The wake was held in the gleaming marble foyer of the Saenger Theater. There was plenty of champagne, fried eggplant and a jazz band perched on the balcony. And then there was Mickey, taking in the whole scene while seated on a wrought iron bench. She was adorned with a tremendous fluorescent pink feather boa, a black hat, a striking floral print dress, an illustrious cigarette holder and a diamond-studded pin on her chest that read “Bitch”.
“My goal was to make her look even prettier than she was in real life,” explained Sammy Steele III, a longtime friend in charge of the cosmetics and wardrobe, “because she was a larger-than-life person.”
In Mickey’s right hand was a Waterford crystal Champagne flute, which she used to carry on her persons just in case the restaurant glassware wasn’t up to par. A bottle of her favorite Champagne, Veuve Clicquot, was not far off, resting on a table.
Mickey Easterling passed away on April 14 after a long illness. She used to own a stake in the Saenger Theatre, regularly attended the Broadway shows that played there and often hosted opening-night parties attended by stars like Lena Horne and Richard Burton.
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“There were so many fabulous women in New Orleans who really had this mission to live life to the fullest and help the arts,” recalled one friend. “These grande dames are all sort of gone.”
Mickey Easterling died on April 14 after a long illness.
But who is the most extremely embalmed corpse of them all? Or should I say, who is the fairest corpse of them all? Mickey Easterling has stiff competition in “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, the legendary Treme Brass Band drummer who passed away in July of 2012.
Lionel was known for his sharp style, his fine music and his funeral. At his wake, held outside the Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion Funeral Home in Treme Lionel wasn’t lying in a casket. Instead, he was standing against a street lamp, decked out in his signature fancy clothes.
According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Lionel wore a “cream sport coat, beige slacks, tasseled loafers, ornate necktie and matching pocket square, bowler hat and sunglasses.” His bass drum rested nearby, and his hands rested atop his omnipresent cane. The gold watch across his left palm was his trademark.
“His head was cocked slightly to the left,” continued the Times-Picayune article. “He appeared ready to step from behind the velvet rope and saunter off to Frenchmen Street, where he reveled in dancing and drinking beer.”
The exuberant idea was hatched by several of Mr. Batiste’s children, in consultation with Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion funeral home owner Louis Charbonnet.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to take care of you, I’m going to send you off good,’” explained Lionel Batiste Jr. in speaking about the promise he made to his father. “That’s the kind of guy he was. He had to be an original.”
Louis Charbonnet explained that in his 50 years in the funeral business, never before has he embalmed a body in such a life-like pose. It was only after studying pictures of Lionel—he preferred to be photographed standing up—and consulting with the children that he decided to put the locally famous musician on his feet.
“You have to think outside the box,” Charbonnet told reporters. “And so he’s outside the box. We didn’t want him to be confined to his casket.”
The funeral home owner refused to tell people how he achieved such a feat of embalming. He did say that it was “a challenge”, and that five or six of his competitors stopped by that day to try and sniff out his secret.
So who is the fairest corpse of them all? You be the judge. But this competition certainly isn’t over yet, the city is filled with characters, and inevitably, they will keep on dying.