New Orleans is a small town, everyone has their favorite local cobbler or po-boy shop and when it comes to funeral bagpipes the go-to woman is a music therapist named Marta Vincent.
Marta’s “day job” is in hospice, she positions her battery-operated keyboard at the bedsides of folks many people have written off then dives into a solo performance that can literally bring the dead back to life, at least for a few moments. For more than 20 years Marta has also had a unique musical side gig, bagpipes. She has piped in President Bush and Clinton and been in Rod Stewart’s warmup band three times—he is Scottish. She has also piped hundreds of deceased New Orleanians into the next realm.
Digital Dying recently sat down with Marta at Satsuma Café in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. As a warm late-winter rain fell outside, she discussed deathbed confessions, the brave lone piper of the D-Day invasion and how after Hurricane Katrina many elderly came back to New Orleans to die.
What’s the history of the bagpipes, and why are they so popular of late?
The Celtic tradition has used pipes for hundreds of years, for weddings, funerals, family gatherings but mainly as an instrument of war. After the potato famine, a lot of Irish and Scottish came across and ended up taking jobs no one wanted, many became cops. When police brothers passed they wanted bagpipes, and that tradition continued, for police and also firefighters. I think 9/11 really helped popularize bagpipes as a funeral instrument, and a lot of new police and firefighter bands have come into existence since then. At some point I asked an old Scotsman where the idea of playing pipes at funerals came from. He told me that according to Celtic tradition the bagpipes were so loud that they let God know a soul was crossing over. At one funeral I did the wife of the deceased came up to me crying and said, “Thank you for piping my husband into heaven.”
Tell me more about the connections between bagpipes and war?
One bagpipe band I am in used to do reenactments and earlier this year was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. We marched across the Chalmette Battlefield in bright red uniforms. Apparently, there was a Scottish regiment there and a ranger told us it was the only time they ever lost a battle, because they weren’t wearing kilts. They were afraid of snakes coming through the marsh grass and instead wore these long pants made out of tartan. Even during World War I, the Scottish regiment wore kilts. I felt one of those kilts, it is seven to nine yards of wool and really tough, like wearing an SOS pad. When they get wet they stay wet for a long time, and World War I was a trench war, so it’s muddy and wet in those trenches. As you march the top of your knee hits the bottom of the kilt and rubs off all your skin, turning your knees into a sore mess. One of my Scottish friends told me that the Germans referred to the Scotts as the ladies from hell, because they always looked so uncomfortable.
Even in World War II, the bagpipes were a war instrument. There was a piper on one of the beaches in D-Day. He just stood out there during the invasion and piped and piped, nobody touched him! He played while people all around him were getting massacred, but he led them off that beach with his pipes. There is a statue of that bagpiper now. I saw a thing on PBS where they asked some old German, “Why didn’t you shoot the bagpiper?” He said, “We thought he was crazy.”
How’d you get into the funeral bagpipe business?
I moved to New Orleans in the ‘70s from San Francisco to go to school for music therapy at Loyola. Piping started after I had my second child, and I found the Pipes & Drums of New Orleans. My first gig was at a tire convention. We paraded along the Mississippi River, I marched in front and they rolled a tire behind me. I have been doing bagpipes at funerals for 23 or 24 years, that’s literally hundreds of funerals! Some people play in groups of two or three but I like being the lone piper, because I can really feel the funeral’s mood and change my routine accordingly. Usually I play as they are taking the casket out of the hearse and again right at the grave. I typically play Amazing Grace, although I’ve also played the LSU fight song and When the Saints Go Marching In. If they are Irish, Danny Boy is beautiful played on pipes. Many people see the bagpipes and just start crying, and in a lot of ways that’s good, because otherwise they don’t cry. The bagpipes help mark the finality of the death process. I have been to some funerals where there were no bagpipes and the funeral ends and it was like, ‘Okay, what do we do now?’
Any spooky bagpipe stories?
Many years ago I got a call to do a funeral for young girl who was struck out of the blue by lightning. The week before she had been at a friend’s house watching Star Trek, the episode where Spock dies and Scotty plays bagpipes at his funeral. She happened to say to her friend’s mother that when she dies she wants bagpipes at her funeral. Next week I get a call saying a girl had been struck by lighting and wanted bagpipes at her funeral. Leonard Nimoy dying recently made me think of that. I wonder if he got bagpipes, I hope so.
Having done so many funerals over time, have you noticed any trends or changes in the industry?
Usually I get three days’ notice for a funeral but more and more people are getting cremated so these days I might get a weeks’ notice. Cremation opens up all kinds of doors because people often want to be scattered in the river, either the Mississippi or Bayou St. John or Lake Pontchartrain. Scattering became especially popular after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans people who had evacuated got cremated and came back home, and they wanted to be buried in the river. In these cases it is usually a very personal ceremony, and I play bagpipes as they scatter the ashes. You just have to make sure you are not downwind. It happens! Pipers learn to be careful where you stand and which way the wind is blowing when you are playing a scattering.
How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your work?
After Katrina all my workplaces—all the nursing homes—were gone, just gone. The funeral homes were gone too, and water had flooded into those crypts. They were storing bodies in refrigerated trucks. The money for mental health was also gone. Everyone was just too busy fixing things, or trying to live life. We came back at Halloween and discovered we had lost our roof. As any good New Orleanian, you learn to adapt, reinvent yourself and carry on. In the years after Katrina I still did a lot of funerals. People who had been displaced wanted to come back to New Orleans to die, because it was home. I remember one guy was in some hospital in Texas. He got released, rented a car, and drove straight to New Orleans. I guess even in death there is a sense of home, and I think that is especially so for families who have been here for generations. It was important for people to come home, no matter what condition they were in.
Were you able to reconnect with your patients again after the storm?
That Friday before Katrina I had seen all my people in these nursing homes, we had good sessions. That Monday the levees broke and I never saw any of them again. At that time I was working in four or five places, so it was over 100 people, and I don’t know what happened to any of them. I know they made it out okay, but where they ended up or what happened to them, I don’t know. With one nursing home that reopened, I heard 70 percent of the patrons passed within the first year, just from the stress of being moved around. Then there were nursing homes like in Chalmette, where I have worked, and where they were unable to evacuate in time and people were actually killed in the storm.
Tell me about your music therapy hospice work?
I work with stroke victims and Alzheimer’s patients and my main instrument is the keyboard. The thing I love about the Alzheimer’s patients is they often have no idea of the present, but they can remember back to when they were teenagers and know the words to old songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s. These people grew up in the Depression and World War II, and as bad as that was they took a lot of joy from the dancing and music of that era. I have had patients where families say they’re in a coma and are completely nonresponsive but I keep talking to them, I keep playing music. Eventually I might see a toe start tapping to the rhythm, or an arm starting to move. I may be holding someone’s hands as they wriggle in bed to My Blue Heaven. They can even get up and dance. My sessions are a time for them to have fun in the remaining time they have left. I have a lady right now whose husband comes and grabs me every time I am there and tells me, “She is waiting for you, come and see her.” She likes the old time, like Fats Domino, and this man will record everything I do in there. I think he is doing that because when she is gone he will have some good memories, even good memoires of events that happened in hospice.
Can you talk about the different ways in which people face the end?
How you live really does determine how you die. People who are angry and wracked with denial and hostility will yell at you and throw you out of the room. I think the sourpusses in life are always kvetching and whining, and that is how they go out. Or they just completely shut down, and even if there are lots of people around them they go out closed, because that is the way they have been during their lives, closed. People who are nice will thank you for coming, and their families are also so appreciative. I had one patient who had been there a while and I never saw anybody visit him. His favorite songs were, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, and What a Wonderful World. Every time I went in he wanted me to play one of those songs. One day I got off the elevator and the nurse said this man was waiting for me. I made my rounds then got the keyboard together and entered his room, his eyes were closed. I started playing one of his favorite songs and said his name. He opened his eyes, looked up at me and smiled, then died. The nurse came in and said, “I thought that’s what he wanted to do.”
Any deathbed confessions?
I’ve had people say they need to tell me something then say things like, “I am not as good a person as you think I am,” or, “I have done a lot of bad things in my life, and I am not proud of what I’ve done.” They can just say a few words through the window, or they can open that door all the way and say the whole thing. They don’t want you to talk about these things, but they want you to know. I am a non-threatening figure, it’s like you can tell the piano player, what is she going to do? You are a musician but ultimately you really are a therapist.
How is death in New Orleans different than death anywhere else?
There is a different way to die down here. People even talk about death differently in the South. Down here you don’t say she died, you say she passed, or she crossed over. Dying is so harsh, dying sounds final. If you pass or you cross over that implies there is a next step, there is something else. When you do hospice and actually see people pass away you see that it is more of a process. I don’t know how you can work in hospice and say there is no soul. No matter what your beliefs are coming in, after you’ve been in hospice awhile you realize, there is something happening there at the end. Death is a transition that often goes on for a while.
We’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, what was it like to live in this city right after the storm?
You can’t explain it. People were like, “Just get a U-Haul and put your stuff in.” There are NO U-Hauls, there is nothing. You came back and there were no stores. There was one place opened in that first year. I couldn’t even buy underwear. I couldn’t buy a pie plate. The Saturday before Katrina I will never forget, I had fixed a beautiful prime rib roast and left it in the refrigerator. After the storm the neutral ground up in Metairie was piled two or three high with nothing but refrigerators and washing machines. All these maggots came, and the guys working on my house couldn’t get to the refrigerator until a few weeks before Thanksgiving. The fire chief had to come, and I said, “Sarge did you see my prime rib?” He said, “Is it the thing on that pie plate? Yeah, I’ve seen it, and it is moving now.” For a couple years the plumber came regularly to blow water out of the gas lines. Another issue, what happened to the four months of mail we didn’t get? Who is reading all of my magazines!?
Any final thoughts on the bagpipes?
A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t know women can play bagpipes.’ I am like, ‘If we can have babies, we can play bagpipes!’ I have kept little notes and am slowly working on a collection, it is going to be called, Time to Pay the Piper. It will be about my experiences and New Orleans funerals in general. I saw a bumper sticker one time that said: “New Orleans, we put the fun in funerals.” I think that sums it all up pretty good.