Black Funeralization and Culturally Grounded Services

James L Moore & Clifton D Bryant. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The Black experience in America has been that of pathos. Slavery, degradation, brutality, segregation, discrimination, deprivation, poverty, and violence have all affected the Black perspective. For much of the 20th century, Black mortality rates have been higher than that for Whites; Blacks die younger than Whites; African American infant mortality rates are much higher than Whites; and Blacks are more likely than Whites to die violently from homicide. Death is no stranger to the African American community. As Kalish and Reynolds (1981) phrased it, “To be Black in America is to be part of a history told in terms of contact with death and coping with death” (p. 103). As Jackson (1972) reflects,

All people die, but not all people die alike. It is a truism to say that people from all groups die, but the immense influence of group membership upon the experience with death is far less obvious. (P. 203)

Death must be confronted and assimilated, and this is most effectively accomplished as a collective endeavor. Through group involvement, social rituals, and cultural ceremonies, humankind transcends death, but the experience of death and the collective response are not universally the same. Speaking to this topic, Moore and Bryant (2002) comment,

Death is a crisis that must be socially transcended. The impact of death, always traumatic and painful, is often exacerbated in the Black experience, as a result of mortality differentials, and economic, social, and cultural factors. African Americans, by virtue of subcultural context and existential conditions, would appear to have a greater sensitivity to death than other groups. In effect, there may be more “death” to process. (P. 3)

Death would appear to have somewhat different social meanings for African Americans than for Whites. In this regard, Masamba and Kalish (1976) articulated several major themes manifested in Black spirituals and blues music that serve to “describe the emotional and religious contents of their relationships with life and death” (pp. 24-25). These themes include death as a symbol for liberation. Historically, for Blacks, death was an underground symbol for the immediate release from the burdens of life (and slavery) and freedom to return to the “Kingdom of God.” Death meant the freedom to go to a better existence in the next world (pp. 25-26). Various authors (e.g., Moore and Bryant 2000a, 2000b) have reported that the Black funeral is often referred to as “the home-going service.” Death then, becomes the venue for escaping the world, and the funeral is a celebration of farewell.

Masamba and Kalish (1976) have also spoken of the Black perception of death as “an integral part of man’s life” (p. 26). Since the days of slavery until the contemporary period, African Americans have lived closer to death than have Whites and have, accordingly, tended to view life and death “not as enemies, but as partners.” The Black experience has made African Americans fatalistic to a degree and has also, perhaps, given them something of a grounded and practical perspective on death. Jackson (1972) observed, “In short, it appears that the magnitude and quality of death among black people have resulted in a practical, worldly view of death” (p. 208). Death is inevitable, and this fact is to be accepted.

It has also been suggested (Masamba and Kalish 1976:26-28) that for African Americans, death is the basis of fear, particularly the fear of unnatural death. As Masamba and Kalish (1976) comment, “Today, it seems that the presence of violent death in the Black ghetto induces fear” (p. 26).

For African Americans, death is not so much an “extinction of life” as an “extension of life” (Masamba and Kalish 1976:28). To die is to leave this life, but it is also the beginning of a new life—an eternal life in the hereafter. In this regard, in the Black community death is frequently referred to as “passing.” Christianity posits two disparate postures toward death. First is the “experience of true human loss”—sadness and grief because the deceased is gone and missed. The second is that of victory over death through salvation and eternal life with God in Heaven (Leming and Dickinson 2002:135). As Masamba and Kalish (1976) describe this transition, “Death is only a bridge between the hopeless and the hopeful life” (p. 28).

As a reflection of this dual posture, it is interesting to note that, historically, especially in New Orleans, funerals in the Black community sometimes incorporated the ritual of the marching jazz band (for a detailed account of funeral jazz bands, see Osbey 1996). The jazz band might play mournful and sorrowful music (dirges) while accompanying the funeral procession and the body of the deceased to the cemetery. After the graveside ritual, however, the band would switch their musical renditions to spirited jazz music such as, “Oh! When the Saints Go Marching In!” or “Didn’t He Ramble?!” The music motivated the assembled funeral congregation to join in and help to “dance the soul on home” (Osbey 1996:97). The band then led the group—clergy, family, and the mourners—back to a lodge or social club to which the deceased had belonged for a reception or a meal. Osbey (1996) refers to such musical funerals with subsequent banquet or party as “doing it up right” (p. 98). The symbolism of such funerals is obvious. The band’s sorrowful music on the way to the cemetery represents the pain and grief of loss, and the spirited jazz music and partying after the graveside service is a sign of joy and hope because of the victory over death through eternal life in Heaven and the exuberant “send off.”

The final theme in the emotional content of the Black relationship with life and death is the concern with “social extinction as the meaning of death without proper ceremonies or survivors” (Masamba and Kalish 1976:25). Social extinction is the opposite of social immortality. Unlike social death where family and friends withdraw from social interaction with the dying individual so that there is a diminution of social relationship, social extinction refers to the severing of all social ties after death. In the absence of appropriate death-related ceremonies and without relatives and friends to provide the link between life and death, the individual is less remembered and fades from social existence. This is a painful prospect—the total annihilation of the social self (Masamba and Kalish 1976:29). As Masamba and Kalish (1976) phrase it, “Death-related ceremonies and rituals can mitigate against this extinction” (p. 29). As they further observe, “To die without proper ceremonies, without the dignity of personhood, without the entourage of other human beings threatens a forgotten afterlife and the possibility of a distant relationship with God” (p. 29).

Thus funeralization occupies a place of considerable centrality in the Black ideology that helps in socially transcending death.

The Black Funeral

Funeralization is a universal set of social activities that serve to accentuate the transformation of the living to the dead—the ultimate rites of passage. The grief and loss of the living must be assuaged, the living must appropriately bid farewell to the deceased, the journey of the dead to the next world must be socially expedited, the dead must be properly memorialized, and social and emotional equilibrium must be restored for family, friends, and community. The task of bringing appropriate context and closure to the African American funeralization process is facilitated by emotional religious spiritualism as an “instrument of collective catharsis” toward the end of “cathartic release” (Holloway 2002:152). This particular process is largely shaped by two leading players, the Black minister, who presides at the funeral service, and the Black funeral director, who serves as the impresario of the culturally coded funeralization process (Moore and Bryant 2000a, 2000b, 2002).

Black funeralization is often characterized by strong ceremonial reliance on songs. Music has, historically, been a modal venue for Blacks to express inner feelings and emotions. The blues, jazz, hymns, folk songs, and spirituals have provided an expressive outlet for a wide range of inner frustrations—anger, joys, sorrows, triumphs, and tragedies. Songs, therefore, occupy a central place in the Black funeral. In White funerals, the music may be provided by soloist performers, such as vocalists, or in the form of background organists or pianists. Group music may be that of the church choir, or if the audience sings, it is highly routinized, measured and moderated, and somewhat perfunctory. It has been asserted that music is a requisite of the soul making the transition to Heaven. As one author related, “the spirit will not descend without song” (Amiri Baraka, cited in Holloway 2002:155).

In the Black funeral service, much, if not most, of the music comes from the singing of the audience, often with minimal musical accompaniment by a pianist. The singing is sincere in motivation, uninhibited, loud, more musically aggregated than chorally integrated, highly personalized, and emotional in tone. It is, essentially, the musical sound of lament. Masamba and Kalish (1976) assert that the funeral music serves two kinds of functions for the survivors. The songs “recall the lost relationship or . . . they speak of the happiness and contentment of the dead” (p. 31). A second function is that “for those Blacks who have shared church experiences with the dead person, the songs may bring back memories of being together in church singing the same songs” (p. 31). Beyond these functions, however, are the more primary purposes of processing grief and venting emotion by giving musical shape to the loss of the loved one and to the glorious next life. In Black funerals, the congregation truly strives to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord!”

In Black funeralization there is also a heavy emphasis on the eulogy. The eulogy, a verbal memorial to the deceased, may be annotated with appropriate scriptural “material from the Old and New testaments” (Masamba and Kalish 1976:32). Eulogies by design, of course, are intended to extol the virtues and achievements of the deceased. In a White funeral, the eulogy may often lean more toward a recitation of specific accomplishments with appropriate annotated, positive commentary. In the Black funeral, however, there may be somewhat more emphasis on enhancing the personal and social image of the deceased, “gilding the lily,” as it were. As Masamba and Kalish (1976) phrase it, “One pastor remarked that Black preachers make every deceased person into a saint, focusing solely on his [or her] positive attributes and exaggerating even these into a paean of glory” (p. 32).

In effect, the eulogy serves to enhance (or create) the virtues of the dead individual, leaving the optimal memory picture in the minds of survivors, relatives, and friends. The efforts of the Black minister in presenting such a favorable image in his or her eulogy, according to Masamba and Kalish (1996), are essentially to deprive the Black church of a “theology of intercession” (p. 32). Rather than the minister’s pleading to God for mercy on behalf of the deceased because of his or her less than exemplary life as a Christian, this aspect of funeralization intercession is minimized because of the overly positive image of the deceased as portrayed in the eulogy. In effect, the minister’s eulogy presents the deceased individual as such a stellar person that the minister feels no need to ask God to intercede and facilitate the salvation of the dead individual. This, in turn, may produce anxiety for the family of the deceased who are well acquainted with that person’s unethical, immoral, irresponsible, or illegal lifestyle and behavior.

Yet another characteristic of Black funerals is the social mandate for viewing the dead body and thus having an “open casket” service. Historically, viewing the dead body was a constituent part of the funeralization process, and in fact, one of the manifest functions of embalming is to preserve the body in a fashion “that will permit them [the family] to view the body, have a visitation, and allow the body to be present for the funeral” (Leming and Dickinson 2002:360). Over time, however, the practice of viewing the dead body has declined significantly, especially in suburban areas and among middle- and upper-middle-class populations. Those who decline to view the dead body of a loved one claim that it is an archaic and distasteful custom that deprives the deceased of the dignity of privacy and, more important, leaves the survivors with an unattractive and distorted memory of their loved one. They would prefer to remember the deceased person as he or she was in life.

The funeral industry, however, vigorously asserts that viewing the dead body is very functional and even incorporates this into a series of “therapies” that they claim funerals (with open-casket ceremonies) are thought to provide. As Salomone (1973) details,

The memory picture of a lifelike, but sleeping corpse together with the comfort, quiet, and beauty of the funeral home (in America) constitutes the therapy of aesthetics. Seeing the “remains” itself makes up the therapy of viewing. (P. 172)

Many scholars in the field of thanatology also contend that viewing the body better helps survivors accept the reality of the death of a loved one.

The funeral industry has, perhaps, predictably, opposed closed-casket funerals, because such a practice obviates embalming and cosmeticizing the dead body. The custom has persisted in many circles, however, especially in rural areas, among the lower-middle and working classes, among African Americans, and elsewhere. There may be a certain practicality in a prolonged wake or period of visitation. As one interviewed individual pointed out (Holloway 2002),

But Black people keep the dead out longer. Sometimes, we keep them out for a week, to wait for people who have to get off from work or find the money for the trip or to wait for people to get home. Whites bury sooner … Black people hang around the area where they keep the body longer. (P. 155)

In Black funeralization, the casket is usually open during the wake or visitation period. A picture of the dead individual frequently appears on the bulletin of the order of service at the request of members of deceased person’s families. An interviewed member of a bereaved family revealed that the picture of the deceased “helped him accept the reality of loss as well as creating in him the feeling of ‘spiritual’ presence of the deceased among the living” (Masamba and Kalish 1976:33). The casket may be closed during the earlier portions of the funeral service and opened toward the end of the service for a formal “walk-by” viewing. The viewing process does, undoubtedly, precipitate externalized expressions of grief. In this regard,

The viewing of the body is the climax of the service, calling for overt expression of strong feelings. Sometimes the behavior exhibited is sufficiently vehement or involves so much physical movement, that the pastor appears upset. (Masamba and Kalish 1976:33)

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Black funeralization, in contrast to other populations, is the dramatically emotional quality of the services. There is a high degree of social toleration on the part of the congregation for spontaneous emotional behavior, both verbal and physical. Grief is not suppressed, but rather, there is encouragement of, and opportunity for, externalized expressions of pain and sorrow. Holloway (2002), in her treatise on African American mourning, reported that one of her African American respondents observed that “Black churches are more apt to express emotions, to shout and cry; they are not afraid to express themselves” (pp. 152-53). Another interviewee told her that “Blacks seem to grieve more, funeralwise, sometimes we go crazy” (p. 155). She reported yet another African American woman as saying,

Black churches seem to shout more, holler more, and sing louder. It becomes a way to relieve or vent problems for Black people. With White churches, they are a little bit different, I think, because they have different problems to deal with. (P. 153)

Holloway (2002:153) herself concluded that

these “different problems” do make a difference. So many Blacks died untimely deaths that funeral anguish came to be rehearsed as a dimension of the culture’s engaged ritual rather than as the reason for the occasion. (P. 153)

This is a significant observation. In effect, the spontaneous emotional externalization of pain and loss became habituated because of the frequency and tragic contexts of death that the dynamic, highly vocal, and expressive enactment of grief became routinized, ritualized, and ultimately institutionalized. Uncircumscribed and uninhibited manifestations of grief became dramaturgical custom.

The theatrical quality of Black funerals became so institutionalized that they became stereotypical in American culture. Richard Pryor, an African American comedian in the 1970s, did a comedy routine that contrasted sedate White funerals with more emotionally dynamic Black funerals. As Holloway (2002) relates,

He [Pryor] then characterized Black funerals as events where people fall out, grief-stricken, in the aisles, scream and weep loudly, and shout with unrestrained anguish and despair. His audience laughed appreciably and in knowing agreement. (P. 154)

This stereotypical portrait of heavily emotional and demonstrative Black funerals has been reinforced by countless movie and fictionalized television program portrayals. Over the years, many television news programs and longer informational new specials have also focused on Black funerals from time to time. So widespread is the colorful image of the theatrical qualities of the Black funeral that such funerals have even, on some occasions, become tourist attractions. Holloway (2002), for example, reports that in the late 20th century, certain African American churches in the Harlem section of New York, became a magnet for busloads of European and Asian tourists who came “to see and photograph the worship services of African American parishes. They were there to audit the expressive passion of music, of ministerial call and congregation response” (p. 153). News accounts in the New York Times spoke of tourists by the thousands. This phenomenon was not without some criticism. A Black professor of law at Columbia University commented, “People don’t just go there for the religion, … they go for a show; there’s this sense of Whites being on safari. All that’s missing is the hats” (quoted in Holloway 2002:153).

Black funerals not only serve as a farewell to, and memorial of, the person who has died, they also celebrate the journey to the next life in Heaven. As noted earlier, the Black funeral service is often referred to as the home-going service (Barrett 1995; Nichols 1989; March 1997; Moore and Bryant 2000a). Death is viewed not only as the loss of a loved one but also as a context for escaping this world of trial and travail. The deceased lays down his or her burdens and “goes home.” The home-going service refers to the transition one makes in going from this earthly life to a spiritual one in Heaven with God and deceased loved ones (Nichols 1989:10). In a metaphorical sense, this is the ultimate rite of passage for those persons longing for spiritual rest and everlasting happiness (Nichols 1989:10-11).

The ambiguity of the funeral rites—the loss and grief of death juxtaposed against the hope and joy of external existence in Heaven—results in convoluted emotions. This conundrum is therefore addressed with exaggerated dramaturgical behavior that is highly demonstrative, heavily vocal, and symbolically expressive and that manifests the externalization of raw emotion. The Black funeral effectively integrates these qualities into a functional whole. As mentioned earlier, Black funeralization relies heavily on the Black minister and the Black funeral director, both of whom have important parts to play.

The Black Church

The Black church has traditionally been regarded as the “flagship” institution in the Black community (White and Cones 1999). As one author (Clifton Taulbert, cited in Holloway 2002) relates, “Our church … provided the framework for civic involvement, the backdrop for leadership, a safe place for social gatherings, where our babies were blessed, our families married, and our dead respected” (p. 151).

The Black church has served as a source of inspiration, improvisation, and hope (Billingsley 1992), and has given Black Americans “the strength to keep on pushing to find meaning, and to creatively transform negative energy into positive accomplishments” (White and Cones 1999:53). It is also one of the few institutions that have survived the desegregation of American society (March 1997) and that are “owned, controlled, managed, supported and patronized” (Billingsley 1989:5) by a majority of Black constituents. Its central message articulated and dramatized by the Black minister is to “keep the faith,” especially during moments of trials and tribulations (Jackson 1972; White and Cones 1999). White and Cones (1999) illustrate this point when they relate that

worshipers in the traditional church were free to express themselves; during services they could holler, shout, dance, cry, and bear witness to the sorrow and joys of life’s journey. African-American ministers encouraged their congregations to identify with biblical characters who kept their faith in ultimate freedom despite the overwhelming power of their oppressors. (P. 54)

The Black Minister

The captain of this flagship institution is the Black minister. The Black minister interprets and defines the meaning of life and death within a spiritually rich context that brings final perspective and promise to the passing of the deceased. The Black minister, with his or her emotional and compelling message of “celebration and salvation,” attempts to facilitate the spiritual journey of the deceased to Heaven and help the grieving congregation to better psychologically and spiritually assimilate the social transition of the deceased from life to death. As flagship captain, the Black minister will (according to Holloway 2002) “ferry you over to the kingdom across the moat of perdition… around the rocks of retribution” (p. 159). In effect, the Black minister, with an emotional sermon of hope, promise, and succor, “preaches” the deceased into Heaven. As one author (Holloway 2002) phrased it, “The voice of the Black preacher as ‘God’s trombone’ gave sound and sense to the institution of the church” (p. 156). Through this emotionally structured spirituality, death is confronted and transcended.

The origin of today’s emotionalized African American funeral service can be found in the funerals of times past. The biblical scholar William Pipes (cited in Holloway 2002) has pointed out that “the chief purpose of old-time Negro preaching appears to be to ‘stir-up’: to excite the emotions of the audience and the minister as a means for the escape from an ‘impossible world'” (p. 152).

A distinctive characteristic of the Black funeral is the element of participatory involvement of the congregation in the sermon of the minister. There is interaction between minister and members of the congregation. It is claimed that the Black church is a “‘church of emotion’ shaped through ‘the call and response of the worship service'” (Holloway 2002:155). In the Black church, there is “more talking back to the preacher” (Holloway 2002:152). The minister then in effect becomes the “cheerleader,” exhorting the flock to ever-higher levels of emotional experience, expression, and response with his or her own particular natural brand of homiletics with its compelling cadence and rhythm. Inasmuch as the funeral is the home-going service, the Black minister is the vocal spokesperson for the well wishers saying good-bye to the deceased leaving on his or her journey home, but the Black funeral director is, in effect, the tour director.

The Black Funeral Director

The Black funeral director is the impresario of the culturally grounded funeral services. He or she plays a role of significant centrality in African American funeralization. Perhaps no one better understands the needs and wants of African Americans, as they relate to death and dying, than Black funeral directors. They have developed a niche in the funeral industry that has been extraordinarily effective and appreciated. The Black funeral director’s niche has been based on providing a service that White competitors have historically been unable to carry out for Black Americans (McDonald 1973). The Black funeral director recognizes the need for a more cathartic funeral experience for the grievers and strives to structure the funeralization process in a fashion that aids the bereaved family and the funeral congregation in finding meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. He or she attempts to accomplish this task by orchestrating a dramaturgically compelling service that promotes emotional expression through an emphasis on spirituality and interpretive ritual.

The Black funeral director is able to capitalize on his or her ethnicity and knowledge of Black culture. This ethnocentric perspective in Black funerals makes it difficult for White funeral directors to penetrate this market. McDonald (1973) reports that “it is blacks’ emphasis on tradition, folklore, and rationale (ethnicity) that is the primary difference between black and white management of a mortuary” (p. 147).

The rituals and traditions of funerals symbolize the identity of a culture. Funerals can easily be viewed as commemorative ceremonies that reflect the worldview, social consciousness, and shared expectations of a culture’s belief about death (Moore and Bryant 2000a:4). The Black funeral director well understands the African American culture and is better able to address the needs of those constituent to this culture by offering a culturally “coded” or culturally grounded funeral service. In effect, the Black funeral service reflects Blacks’ culture even to an exaggerated degree. As one Black funeral director is reported to have explained (McDonald 1973),

We are best able to meet the specific needs of Black people. Any mortician can prepare the remains … we know all of the special problems of our own race and are equipped to deal with them … For example, I know what to do when low income people can’t afford an expensive funeral but they want to do their best for the deceased. (P. 142)

Another Black funeral director puts it more succinctly: “Only Black morticians can bury Black people in the real spirit of negritude” (McDonald 1973:142).

The Black funeral director’s insights into, and sensitivity to, Black culture, have also tended to work to the economic self-interest of these funeral directors. Black funeral directors have been more able than White funeral directors to dictate the economic parameters of the funeral services that they offer because they can use their knowledge and insights to manage grief and better direct and emotionally manipulate the selection (and costs) of funeralization specifics (such as the choice of a coffin). The grieving survivors trust their funeral director, and they take his or her advice when choosing services, even if relatively expensive. The cathartic quality of the services satisfies the survivors and the congregation, and thus funeral directors have satisfied clients. This results in most Black funeral directors becoming successful businesspeople. This economic success enhances their social stature and credibility. Many become leaders in the Black community and frequently come to serve their community and perform services for their constituents in a wide variety of ways, such as providing financial and political advice; transporting elderly individuals to a doctor’s office or a voting polling place; loaning equipment, such as folding chairs for parties; being “patrons” of civic affairs; and serving on committees (McDonald 1973:141; Moore and Bryant 2000b). The Black funeral director is frequently a “mover and shaker” in the community and a businessperson of respected integrity and sagacity. Thus the relationship of funeral director to members of the Black community is very much of a symbiotic variety.

Concluding Remarks

The Black experience in America is dramatically different from that of Whites, and Blacks’ cultural expressions are not uniformly parallel. This appears to be especially the case in regard to Blacks’ cultural posture toward death and the dead and in their needs and desires concerning funeralization. Because of Blacks’ cultural experience, there may be more grief or a more intense grief to process, and this may necessitate different funeralization practices and rituals and a greater need for emotional catharsis as a healing mechanism. Both the Black minister and the Black funeral director play roles of centrality in this culturally coded pattern of funeralization and aid in effecting the desired level of emotionalism requisite for effective cathartic release. Such funeralization facilitates the journey home for the deceased, affords effective solace and opportunity for expedited grief work for the survivors, and provides a robust social mechanism for the reinstitution of community equilibrium.