The Role of Funeral Directors
In Homegoings, Owens Funeral Home customer Linda “Redd” Williams-Miller describes the African-American funeral this way: “Homegoing. A happy occasion… going home to be at peace… You’re going home to meet the ones that went on before you, and they’re there waiting for you.” Throughout Homegoings, Isaiah Owens relates the culture and history of death and mourning in the black community, harkening back to slavery and segregation. He explains that “when the slaves were killed… it wasn’t a proper funeral, but they kind of did their best.… When they got down in the woods, away from the slave masters… they came up with songs like ‘Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world, going home to live with my God.’” He recalls that when he was growing up in a community in the South, the local funeral director was a lifeline. Owens says, “Whenever somebody got sick, they would call Mr. Bird at the funeral home, and then he would ride out in the country to tell my mother, ‘Such and such one is real sick in Philadelphia.’”
Owens recalls more recent history, too, noting that there was an era when Harlem was full of mom-and-pop funeral homes, each with a loyal clientele. But, he says, “Since 1968 I probably could count at least 20 or 25 funeral homes that have gone out of business.” He notes another trend: in the 1980s, many of the departed were victims of violence or AIDS, whereas today people are more likely to die of heart problems or stroke. Owens routinely receives invitations to sell his establishment to bigger companies, but he always turns them down. “I’m trying to create a business that could take care of my family for maybe the next hundred, 200 years,” he explains. In doing so, he is also carrying forward a legacy — dating back more than a century — of the black funeral director as a pillar of the community.
During the slave trade, death provided a rare time for slave communities to congregate, socialize and celebrate, and, according to funeral historian Suzanne E. Smith, these gatherings helped lay the groundwork for African-American communal life in the post-slavery era. Such a celebration served to honor the body of someone who had not been honored in life, and the occasion provided an opportunity for the living to gather and discuss the path to freedom and liberation. A funeral director would often lead this conversation and the relative service and oversee rituals that included the preparation of the body, the "settin' up" (sitting up with the body prior to burial), the burial itself and, in many cases, a second funeral that followed several weeks later.
These gatherings took on a more formal nature after the end of the Civil War under segregation. This marked the beginning of the modern African-American funeral industry. As there was less of a need to congregate in secret, funerals became more commercial public rituals and less intimate affairs. Still, many Afro-centric African-American communities retained slave funeral traditions, including some with roots in African tribal customs. Specific rites from the Bakongo and LaDogaa tribes and various other tribes in the Kongo-speaking region of Africa have been maintained. For example, the custom of placing significant household objects on graves was documented by historians in Georgia in 1843 and in Zaire in 1884. Other rituals with African roots include placing coins on the deceased’s eyes to keep them shut and in the deceased’s hands as a contribution to ancestors. Music and dance also remain a steady presence in many African-American funeral celebrations. While a typical white Christian funeral was a more somber event, mourning in the African tradition was followed by expressive dance, music, libations and offerings that would allow participants to release grief while celebrating a new phase of life for the deceased.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an industry developed that became a path to economic independence for many African-American funeral directors. With segregation firmly in place, black undertakers performed services for their own communities that whites refused to offer, strengthening racial bonds and lending black funerals a cultural significance that was uniquely African-American. Black funeral homes started appearing in the United States, with the first established in 1876 in Savannah, Georgia. During the Civil War, embalming techniques had been developed to preserve the bodies of soldiers that were to be shipped home for burial, so funeral directors needed both to preserve and to bury bodies, further elevating their roles in the community. As embalming skills developed, the industry became increasingly professional. Undertakers could offer their communities specialized services that could not be performed by individual family members. In To Serve The Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, historian Suzanne E. Smith notes that funeral directors would sometimes adopt titles such as “embalming surgeon” and “mortician” in order to associate themselves with the medical field. In the eyes of the community, the role undertakers played in counseling the family and friends of the departed also put them on par with clergy.
The funeral directors’ financial freedom and positions as business leaders also played into the civil rights movement. Funeral homes became safe meeting places, and funeral directors were known to assist demonstrations and rallies (including the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott) by providing covert transportation in hearses. Funeral directors also used their community roles to combat some of the negative stereotypes of African-American culture that were emerging in radio, television and film. Advertisements for funeral homes deliberately projected a positive, respectable image of the black experience.
Funeral directors were thus placed at the center of ritual events with an almost unparalleled weight and power, both symbolically and economically, in African-American society. Attendance at funerals was and is nearly mandatory in many communities for family and friends, and funerals retain the aura of important civic and religious events. Modern African-American funerals are often triumphant and lavish, regardless of the economic class of the bereaved family, and are generally felt to be appropriate moments for financial and social investment.
Caption: Isaiah Owens prepares a woman for her "last viewing" at his funeral home. Credit: Marshall Stief
» Aleksander, Irina. Ferraro, Catherine. “Examining the African American Way of Death and Business.” Mason Research, March 18, 2011.
» Innovations in End-of-Life Care. “Death and Dying in the Black Experience: An Interview with Ronald K. Barrett, PhD.”
» Kenyon College. “The History of African American Death: Superstitions, Traditions and Procedures.”
» The Last Miles Of the Way: African-American Homegoing Traditions, 1890-Present. Edited by Elaine Nichols, Columbia: Commissioners of the South Carolina State Museums, 1989.
» McMickle, Marvin Andrew. An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2002.
» Religion in American History. “The Colored Embalmer: Homegoings, Capitalism And African American Civil Rights.”
» Smith, Suzanne E. To Serve The Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press/Belknap, 2010.
» Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area. “Going Home.”
» Ziel, Deborah L. “You Can’t Take That Away from Me: A ‘Proper’ Burial in the African American Tradition.” University of Central Florida.