African American Funeral Traditions
How is the Funeral of Africans Celebrated in America
Funerals are, ironically, an important part of life. So studying them is a worthwhile project for anyone interested in human culture and, in fact, human nature. Funerals have long been a part of the study of anthropology and other social sciences, and those who have studied them will testify that they offer plenty of insight into the cultures of the world – both past and present. It is for this reason that we offer this article as part of a continuing series that looks at how various human cultures honor, and even celebrate, their dead during their funeral ceremonies and other memorial traditions. This article looks at the funeral traditions of African Americans, a group of people that found themselves involuntarily uprooted to a new world and new life-style beginning in the late 17th century but which eventually saw their new traditions, developed from emotional and spiritual necessity, become an inspiration for what now is thought of as the “traditional” American funeral.
Defining Words: Elaborate Homegoings
The best way to describe African American funerals, since they came into being as something separate from traditional African funerals, is with two words: elaborate homegoings. At first glance, the word homegoings might be taken to be a cultural reference to a return to the culture's roots in Africa. But closer inspection will reveal that the inspiration for modern African American funerals is a spiritual homegoing, not a cultural. Christian celebration is the key to these homegoings, and Christianity did not become a part of African-American culture until the people involved had been in captivity as slaves in the United States (and other parts of the American continents) for several decades. When African-Americans refer to their funerals as homegoings, they are referencing the spiritual return of the deceased person's soul to his or her heavily roots in heaven. A physical return to Africa is not what is being referenced – at least not in most cases.
So, in the respect that an African American funeral is typically a celebration of a deceased's return to God to live forever under the reign of The Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it is not very different from most other funerals celebrated in the modern American culture. But there is one key are that often distinguishes an African-American funeral from others: an elaborate nature. (Though this is changing, as African-American culture gradually inspires changes in how other American cultures celebrate funerals.)
Yes, indeed, African American funerals – as with all spiritual celebrations of the African American culture – are elaborate. People in this culture spare no amount of energy – and often even expense – in celebrating passionately during an African American funeral. Loud music, passionate prayer (complete with tears and joyful wails) and a general spirit of seemingly – to the outsider at least – crazed joy are common. Indeed, many who are not used to witnessing the wild scenes of African-American celebrations of God may even say they are somewhat insane.
But, again, the roots of these elaborate, energetic celebrations are not necessarily to be found in Africa. Historians and anthropologists tend to agree that the modern African-American funeral gets its inspiration from a reaction to the harsh, cruel life African-American people were forced to endure in their first decades, even centuries, on the American continents. In order to suppress any temptation for physical rebellion in their slaves, white slave owners across the New World introduced their captives to Christianity, a religion that encourages acceptance of severe conditions on Earth in anticipation of eternal bliss with Jesus Christ's glorious reign forever over all that is cruel and evil. (Lost on the slave owners, of course, was that they were, themselves, an example of cruelty and evil. They didn't seem to recognize that they were teaching their captives how to ultimately win freedom. With the introduction of Christianity, slavery itself was doomed to failure – though, of course, it did take more than 200 earthly years for this to come about.)
Funeral celebrations in Christianity have long been a celebration – and a reminder to the living – of the fact that earthly pain and suffering is only temporary and that, in earthly death, a believer lives on gloriously in peace and victory forever. Because African-American slaves had a greater physical stake in Christianity (because their earthly conditions were much harsher than those of the white men and women who introduced them to Christianity) their funeral celebrations were more passionate – and elaborate – than those of other American cultures. And that difference continues to modern days.
As we will see below in the remainder of our discussion on this topic, African-American funerals today have most of the same elements as any other Christian funeral, but they are just a touch – or in many cases several touches – more wild and passionate. This difference is gradually fading as the fevor by which African-Americans celebrate Christianity tends to become shared by those in other American cultures. So, in a few decades, it may be that this article is obsolete, because there will be almost no difference between African-American and just “American” funerals. But, for the time being, there are still a few differences worth noting.
Elements of an African-American Funeral
African-American Funerals follow the same standard model that most other Christian funerals adopt. First there is a viewing ceremony, usually within a week of a death, in which family and friends gather for a few hours in the presence of the deceased's body. Usually, the body is well dressed and made up in advance of this service, and mourners are encouraged to lovingly approach it for a few minutes of quiet solace and contemplation of an earthly life well lived.
Within a day or two of the viewing comes the funeral service itself. This is often where the main differences can be seen between African American Funerals and those of other American cultures. Inhibitions are typically not encouraged in an African-American funeral. Passionate celebrations of faith and love – complete with very loud, happy-sounding music and plenty of up-beat, spirited preaching – even from people who are not ordained ministers – can be expected. All who have something to say at the service are encouraged to come forth and give rousing tributes to the deceased and, most importantly, to God. (In fact, in many African American Funerals, the specific actions and events of the life of the deceased are given little attention. The primary focus is on the eternal victory that God has achieved by bringing His beloved son or daughter home. This is not to say that important highlights of a person's life are not mentioned during an African-American funeral, they are just not emphasized. God's glory, not the individual's, the highlights of a typical African-American funeral. This is, perhaps, the key difference between an African-American Funeral and one of any other Christian culture.
After the funeral service comes the traditional funeral procession from the site of the memorial service to the cemetery where burial will be held. While other Christian cultures have gradually begun to deemphasize this part of a traditional funeral, it remains a very important part of the African-American funeral. In many cases, the African-American funeral procession can actually resemble a full-fledge parade, led by a complete with a marching band – usually playing some sort of up-beat jazz or rag-time music – and an elaborate moving structure upon which the deceased is triumphantly brought to his or her resting place in a casket overseen by elaborately adorned pall-bearers. Many experts in the death care industry have speculated that the importance of this festive procession – which has been compared to the celebratory manner in which Jesus himself was escorted victoriously into Jerusalem for his final days on earth – is the main reason why cremation has not caught on among the African-American culture as it has with others on the American continents. Having a physical body of the deceased available to bring triumphantly to a cemetery for burial is an important element to the African-American funeral. This celebration would simply not be the same if cremation ashes were to be escorted instead. (This is not to say that cremation is non-existent among African-Americans. It is just not as prevalent as in other cultures.)
Even in cases in which a funeral procession is not led by a marching band and a moving “float” carrying the casket, those who find themselves caught in traffic behind the parade can often tell it is an African-American procession simply by observing the activity in the ranks behind the vehicle carrying the casket. Screams of joy and loud mournful wails are common amongst those in the following vehicles – as is celebratory toots of car horns. And many of the vehicles will be decorated in bright colors suitable for a springtime celebration parade.
And, finally, the burial ceremony itself is filled with more of the same that was seen and heard at the funeral itself. More boisterous preaching can be expected. Energetic a-Capella choir performances are common and more spontaneous, prayerful speeches can be heard. In other American cultures, the burial ceremony itself is gradually becoming a second thought, but, in African-American cultures, it is yet more reason to celebrate the glorious future that the deceased has in store – as, indeed, all believers have – with God. For people caught up in this glorious spiritual truth, the celebration is slow to wind down. Alas, finally it does, as the deceased's body is respectfully and tearfully lowered into its grave, usually in full view of all who are in attendance at the burial ceremony. (It is worth noting that, while attendance at the burial ceremony at the cemetery is usually significantly down from what it was at the sanctuary in other Christian cultures, African-American funerals usually see no drop in attendance. All who attend the viewing can be expected to also come to the main funeral ceremony and then to the cemetery. This, of course, can vary according to the logistics of the available sites and the desires of the family who are the chief organizers of the funeral, but, in general, it still holds as something to be expected of African-American funerals.)
A final area in which African-American funerals are typically different from funerals in other American cultures is in their observance of superstitions. (It is perhaps true that some of these superstitions can trace back to the culture's African roots, but that contention is very much open to debate.) Chief of these superstitions is that a funeral not be conducted on rainy days or, especially, during conditions when lighting is known to be in the area. Many funeral homes specialize primarily in helping African-American families to plan funerals and this is one of the main reasons why this specialty is needed: scheduling funerals to avoid bad weather can create a logistical night mare for funeral homes that also serve families that do not harbor such superstitions. Busy funeral homes are sometimes in no position to offer such a service while also attending competently to their non-African American customers. So, for many families, working with an African-American specialty funeral home is the only logical choice.
The same is true of cemeteries. African-American culture often requires that bodies be buried, specifically, with feet facing to the East. (The origins of this superstition, again, are debatable, so we will not venture into that discussion here.) This can, likewise, present a logistical problem for cemeteries that serve multiple cultures, the others of which do not have strict requirements for burial position. Arrangement of all graves in a cemetery can be affected by this African American funeral requirement. And, for this reason, many African-Americans are buried in cemeteries run by their own families who can then responsible for assuring that the graves are positioned in a manner by which all inhabitants in the cemetery can be buried with feet facing East.
In summary, an African American funeral is a spiritual affair that is intended to glorify God and the victorious homecoming that the deceased will experience in Heaven. Whereas other Christian cultures have begun a trend toward making their funerals a “celebration of life” for the deceased. That phrase is uncommon in regard to African American funerals. A better phrase is this: a celebration of God's glorious victory.