African American Funeral Service Rituals
Recommended Reading: Cross-Cultural Funerals
Other aspects of African American funeral services that have remained traditional, particularly among southern families, are:
- Flower girls, the female counterpart of a pallbearer, offer special attention to grieving family members.
- “Nurses” are sometimes present to aid a mourner who becomes overwhelmed with emotion.
- Musical performances are presented by a choir and/or loved ones.
- A large assortment of flowers to decorate the coffin is common.
- Placing personal items on the grave is a custom that has been traced back to different countries in Africa.
For many in the African American community, funeral services and expressions of mourning contain a theme of celebration, rather than the somber emotions associated with death in other cultural settings. This attitude grew out of the period of slavery,when most slave owners would not allow slaves to gather for funerals. During this dark time, death was often seen as freedom and a reason to celebrate amidst the grieving. Many believed that the deceased’s soul returned to their African homeland. From this arose the concept of Homegoing, which survives today, although it is now seen as the soul entering heaven or joining with ancestors. After slavery was abolished, the newly freed slaves could openly gather to honor their dead, and the opportunity to honor their loved ones became an important time in their community. Extravagant celebrations of the deceased’s life became common, including music and dancing, helping fuel the growth of the Jazz Funeral (discussed in more detail under Other Funeral Customs).
Despite the ending of slavery, the period of segregation still kept African Americans separated from other parts of society, including in death. Since few white undertakers would serve the African American community, black undertakers created independent businesses to fill the need. During the Civil War black soldiers were often assigned to burial details, recovering and burying the dead, but also assisting with keeping death records and finding ways to preserve remains to be sent home to other parts of the country for interment (before this time embalming was not a common process in American burial practices). These experiences prepared many soldiers for work in the burial industry, not only allowing them to serve their brothers and sisters in their time of grief, but also allowing them to preserve numerous funeral customs associated with their African heritage. Integration has brought black and white society closer together, but funeral traditions remain distinctive in African American culture and are a unique, but diverse part of American culture.