Festive Farewells

A Whitman-based funeral home supervisor often calls on Mummery to create touching sendoffs.

By Joseph Myers

As Brian Donnelly sees it, death need not be a somber matter to face. Instead, the passing of an individual can serve as a chance to laud that person’s legacy. Donnelly, one of the namesakes behind Murphy Ruffenach Brian Donnelly Funeral Home, 2237-41 S. Third St., does just that roughly 225 times a year. Nearly half of those farewells are festive, Mummers-infused celebrations that rival the reverence and extravagance of famous New Orleans jazz funerals.

“We never do anything cookie-cutter because everyone deserves a proper recognition of their contributions to this world,” Donnelly said from his Whitman-based facility. “With the Mummers, that sense of wanting to put together a flashy goodbye intensifies, and we’re always eager to help with giving families that chance to pay musical tributes to their loved ones.”

The 46-year-old has long held affinity for the Mummers—Philly’s beloved New Year’s Day Parade revelers. This is thanks, in large part, to his former membership in the Avalon and Quaker City string bands and present participation with Bill McIntyre’s Shooting Stars. Given the various groups’ penchant for pageantry, it makes sense that sendoffs would have numerous eye-catching components. Since his first Mummers-centric funeral in 2002, Donnelly has enjoyed being an integral presence behind such ornate displays, particularly since he assumed his present role six years ago.

Brian Donnelly, in white gloves, stands at attention amid mourners.

“There are various ways to acknowledge fallen Mummers, but my favorites are the parades because they’re just dynamite,” Donnelly said of the unique adieus. “Being a neighborhood guy and having established amazing camaraderie and close ties among many Mummers and their families, I know the people we’re serving, so I always like a show, and the parades provide it.”

These treks throughout South Philly’s streets might not make as many headlines as the interesting takes on solemnity that New Orleans jazz-heavy funerals garner, but the local nods to immortal Mummers certainly have more of a familial feel to them. Each see-you-on-the-other-side valediction resonates with Donnelly, but three in particular standout.

“Since [Joseph] ‘Pop’ Bryson [Sr.] passed [in September 2014], there has been this increased attention to celebrating departed Mummers through parades and special goodbyes,” Donnelly said of the founder of the Bryson New Year’s Brigade. “The neighborhood is intertwined with the Mummers, so when someone dies, especially someone so important, you can expect for there to be bigger interest in recognizing that person as a pioneer. With ‘Pop’ Bryson and his parade, that was obvious.”

Mourners do a Mummers dance.

This month, Donnelly hosted two special sendoffs as the Mummers community honored two heavyweights: Francis MyIntyre, of the Shooting Stars; and Bob Shannon Jr., whom Donnelly dubbed the “kings of the fancies and the string bands.”

“It’s tough to see people go, but when that time comes and their families want to celebrate their lives as Mummers, I’ll be here to help them to do that,” he said. “What’s also great is that the community will join us because Mummery is an inescapable part of living in South Philly.”

Many, many moons from now, when he himself leaves this life for the next, Donnelly has said he wants “to go big” with a Mummers funeral, finding that a perfect way to thank the various groups for their effect on his life.

Scott McIntyre joins the procession at his father Fran’s funeral.

“I give all due respect to what happens in New Orleans, but we have them beaten,” the proprietor said. “The Mummers are an institution, and I’m proud to be there for families at tough times to put together something that was so instrumental to their relatives’ existence.”