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The history of African-American Funeral Service has it’s
roots in Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt was an
African country ruled by an African people, a people whom historians credit
with developing techniques of embalming and preparing the dead for funeral
services. Their practices were
elaborate, using cloths, spices and special techniques to preserve the
body. The practice of preserving the
dead for a long period of time and placing them in a container for a funeral
and burial, was started by these Ancient Egyptians, people of color. This is a common practice observed throughout
the world today.
during slavery, it was against the law for blacks to give their loved ones a
decent funeral and proper burial. In the early years of slavery, they were
prohibited from gathering together in any form.
Slaves could not assemble or meet in a group at all, for fear that they
would revolt against their masters. If
they broke the law, slaves were beaten or killed. The deceased slave was usually buried without
ceremony on non-crop producing land in unmarked graves, sometimes dug by slave
children to young to work in the fields.
Therefore, the first African-Americans were denied the opportunity to
mourn their loved ones together and were not given a chance to publicly
celebrate a life lived. But when a
member of the master’s family died, house slaves were given the responsibility
of washing, preparing and dressing the dead.
They also had to plan the repast, the gathering of family and friends
after the funeral. Eventually, slave
rebellions occurred and slave owners were forced to make changes and
concessions in order to keep the peace.
They began to allow families to live together, but this did not stop them
from separating and selling them if they chose.
With the introduction of Christianity, slaves owners began
to allow slaves to meet for religious services and funerals. Whites were reportedly shocked at the
behavior of slaves at funerals, because they were happy, jubilant and
celebrated the homegoing of their loves ones.
The slaves, understandably, had no hope of returning to their homeland,
so death was seen as going to be with Jesus and symbolized going home. Death was also seen as a relief from the agony
and humiliation of slavery. Slaves looked forward to leaving their
raggedy shacks for their “mansion in the sky.”
During the Civil War, Black soldiers were responsible for
removing dead bodies from the battlefields and kept records of burial sites for
soldiers killed in combat. Embalming was
necessary to preserve the bodies of union soldiers, killed in the south, so
that they could be shipped back home for services and burial in the north. Blacks assistants to military doctors were
trained and did much of the embalming.
Given the fact that Black slaves prepared the dead, dug
graves, and maintained the cemeteries, Blacks were the most prepared for
occupations in funeral service. “Funeral
Parlors” were among the first businesses opened by Blacks, after slavery was
abolished. Around the 1900’s Black churches began forming Burial
Societies. They collected money from
church members to pay for their funerals, coffins and graves. (This is a
forerunner to what we now know as pre-need funeral plans, where a person can
pay, in advance, monthly towards a funerals).
Black funeral homes began opening their doors at this time, because
there was now money to support these businesses.
In the early 1900’s most blacks lived in the rural
communities (which my family calls “in the country”) and whites lived in the
cities. Therefore the first funeral
directors had the challenge of driving long distances, over dirt, bumpy country
roads, in horse drawn carriages to care for the dead at the family home. When someone died at home, they were laid on
a “cooling board” for purposes of preservation and the funeral director had to
provide the ice for the cooling board.
In these rural communities the deceased was often casketed and viewed in
the family home.
In the 1920’s Blacks started moving into the industrial
cities to get the good manufacturing jobs.
Blacks were allowed and encouraged to go to mortuary school and start
businesses in order to service the increasing numbers of Blacks that were
moving to the cities. Racism and
prejudice were alive and well and many White businesses preferred not to handle
Black bodies. My father’s uncle, Jimmy
Woods was encouraged by a staff from a White mortuary in Pasadena, to get his embalming credentials
and start a business.
In 1928 he opened the doors of James Woods Funeral Parlor.
It was common practice for Blacks to convert the bottom
floor of their private home into a Funeral Home, which were then most popularly
called “Funeral Parlors.” Most Black
funeral homes I’ve visited still have the mortuary on the bottom floor and a
residence on top.
After the Civil War and after reconstruction, Black
businesses began to spring up in the cities, restaurants and cafes, barber and
beauty shops, insurance companies/offices, food stores, theaters, hotels, shoe
shine stands, clubs, etc… thrived for a period.
They were the only businesses where Blacks were welcomed, and not
subjected to “White only signs and sections.” With integration however, many Black
businesses began to fail because Blacks were allowed to and began to do
business with White establishments, but Whites rarely patronized Black
businesses. ( My father often says integration was not a friend to the Black
businesses, for this reason.)
It has been said, that only four institutions in the
African-American community survived the desegration of American Society: the Black Church,
the Black Beauty Salon and Barber Shop, the Black Cocktail Lounge and the Black
Mortuary. The Black mortuary was unique because it usually started as a family
business and was passed on from generation to generation. The Black funeral director is a community
member who has traditionally been trusted, respected, viewed as a leader, and
seen as compassionate, knowledgeable, and resourceful. Funeral Service is and has long been, a
The history of African-American Funeral Service is a long
and rich history, that dates back to Ancient Egypt, continues thru slavery, the
Civil War, and integration. Blacks have
had a long legacy of expertise in, compassion for, and commitment to, Funeral
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