The History of Death Culture and Celebrations of Life in the Black Community
African Americans Become Leaders in the Post-Civil War Funeral Industry
After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, one of the first businesses established by African Americans was a funeral home. At that time, funeral homes were segregated by race, religion, and ethnicity; not much has changed to this day. In fact, African American-run funeral homes often cater to the needs of the Black community according to traditions and rituals passed down for generations.
Before the Civil War, the death of a loved one was managed by families privately, where they would bury and display the body themselves. However, because so many bodies had to be transported during the Civil War, the need for funeral home services became important, especially when it came to embalming or preserving the bodies for burial. When African Americans became leaders in the funeral industry in this post-war time period, they also brought with them their own culture and traditions and applied it to funeral services.
Death is Something to Celebrate
The prevailing concept that the Black community brought to funerals is that death is not something to be sad about but something to celebrate; the deceased no longer have to endure pain, heartbreak, and injustice in this world. This concept stemmed from when slave owners wouldn’t permit slaves to mourn the loss of another slave, so the slaves channeled their pain into celebrating the deceased slave as finally being completely free. The idea of finally achieving long-sought-after freedom provided them with a reason to rejoice without feeling remorse. Of course, they would still mourn the deceased and feel great sadness, but first and foremost they celebrated that the deceased no longer has to live in a world that treated them so badly.
Another tradition within the Black community when someone passes away, is to inform every single family member and friend of the deceased and everyone is expected to attend the funeral. If someone is unable to make it, they might postpone the funeral until everyone is able to be in attendance.
Superstition surrounding death is another thing that exists in Black culture. For example, if it’s a rainy day, it’s generally believed to be bad luck to bury the body that day. When it’s sunny with blue skies, that signifies that heaven is open to the deceased and ready to accept them. There are even superstitions around the way the deceased passes. If someone is on their deathbed and it’s raining and/or lightning strikes near where they are, then that means that the devil is taking their soul.
It can take up to a week after death for a funeral to take place, as there is an accepted mourning period of five to seven days leading up to the funeral service. The family will hold a wake before the funeral where close family and friends will mourn and view the body, eat food, and share memories of the deceased. Wakes can take place at a funeral home, a church, or where the deceased used to reside, and two viewing days may be observed for the event. Nurses are sometimes present at funeral services in order to help those that might become overwhelmed with emotion.
At the actual burial site, another tradition is that the body is buried with their feet facing east, so that they are able to rise on Judgment Day. Coins are also often placed on the deceased’s eyes in order to keep them closed and sometimes they are also placed in the deceased’s hands as a token to accept them into the next world. In addition, coins are actually placed around the burial site as well, for the same reason of putting coins into their hands. Black traditions have also dictated that the body should always be covered when it’s buried and never just placed in the ground.
The Importance of Community
Even the way African Americans run funeral homes is unique in that these family-owned businesses often operate by word of mouth and fostering relationships within the community. They often don’t do traditional marketing and their existence is based on loyalty. More often than not, Black funeral directors are also community leaders whom everyone knows, counselors who families would go to for support and guidance. They are more than just funeral directors; they are the foundation of a community needed to support families through death.
Most recently, The Atlantic published a piece on Black funeral directors and how Black-run funeral homes are struggling to survive in new markets. The worry is that if these institutions struggle to survive, some of these historically Black traditions may disappear. Over the course of more than 100 years, Black funeral homes have offered comfort, understanding, and belonging to Black families, during a time when they needed that sense of connection the most.
“Culture and practice and ritual are known and remembered in a black funeral home, and that matters in a time of grief.”
Karla F.C. Holloway, a professor of English, law, and African American studies at Duke University