Celebrating the History of African-American Funeral Traditions

Feb 1, 2017 | 7 comments

In honor of February’s Black History Month, enjoy this fascinating background about African-American funeral traditions and how they evolved.

Allen Dave Funeral Director

Allen Dave, funeral home owner and funeral director.

Funeral director and funeral home owner Allen Dave presented this information about African-American funeral service traditions at the 2016 International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) University. For 25 years, Dave ran a successful wedding event planning business. He became a funeral director in 2003 and now owns and operates multiple Allen Dave Funeral Homes and Crematoriums as well as cemeteries in Texas and Louisiana.

It Started in Egypt

African-American funeral service has roots in ancient Egypt. Egypt, of course, is part of the African continent. Historians credit the ancient Egyptians with the creation of embalming techniques and elaborate funeral services for the dead.

Egyptian SarcophagusThe Egyptians used cloths, spices, ointments and special techniques to preserve the body, known as mummification. They created the sarcophagus, an elaborate burial container to further preserve the dead. They believed the preservation of the mummy empowered the soul after death.

Egyptians built monumental structures to store the wealthy dead, with plenty of material goods to sustain the deceased in the afterlife. The Great Pyramid of Giza and its surrounding structures are an example of these majestic mausoleums built for pharaohs and members of the noble classes.

West African Traditions

Many of the people brought to the Americas as slaves came from West African tribes. In Africa, the older women were in charge of preparing the corpse, bathing and dressing the body. No one else was allowed to touch the body until the bathing ritual was completed.

Before burial, there was a presentation of gifts to the deceased. As with the Egyptians, burial items were considered necessary for a comfortable afterlife. The mourners placed gifts in the coffin prior to burial.

Public wailing and communal weeping was often the emotional climax of these traditional mortuary practices. The weeping was often started by the women who oversaw the bathing ritual.

The mourners would visit the burial site in the days and weeks after the burial, to pray that the spirit of the deceased was at peace. A celebratory memorial service might be held a few weeks to a year after burial. This memorial service, featuring singing, drumming, dancing and feasting, honored the deceased one last time and marked the official end of the funeral ritual observations.

Ghana colorful coffins

Colorful coffins from Ghana

In Ghana, located in the northwest part of the African continent, carpenter artisans are renowned for making fantastic coffins that represent a person’s passions in life. Coffin shapes have included shoes, animals, automobiles, airplanes, cell phones, cameras, tools, cigarettes, boats and other fantastic designs. They are only made to order, using simple hand tools, and the coffins feature extravagantly painted finishes. Some coffins may take two to six weeks to complete.

Slavery and Funerals in the Americas

During 363 years of slavery in the Americas, it was against the law for slaves to give their loved ones a decent funeral and proper burial. In the early years, slaves were prohibited from gathering together in groups of four or more, out of the fear they would revolt against their masters.

Deceased slaves were often buried without ceremony on non-crop-producing land in unmarked graves. Children too young to work in the fields were tasked with digging graves and burying the dead. Slave funerals took place late at night in “hush harbors,” wooded, secluded areas near the slave quarters.

Slave Cabins

Restored historical slave cabins.

Eventually, slave rebellions took place and slave owners were forced to make changes and concessions to keep the peace. Some allowed families to live together, but the masters could still separate and sell off individuals if they so chose.

The first African-Americans were denied the opportunity to mourn their dead with their traditional rituals from West Africa. But when a member of the master’s family died, house slaves were responsible for washing, preparing and dressing the dead. They also were given the task of preparing the repast (pronounced “re-pass”), a meal for family and friends who gathered after the funeral.

Recognizing they would never return to their homelands, the African slaves in America changed their attitudes toward death. Death was seen as relief from the agony and humiliation of slavery. With the introduction of Christianity to the slaves, death offered the chance to be with Jesus and go home to their “mansion in the sky.” Thus, the funeral evolved into a homegoing or homecoming celebration.

Slaves were allowed 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 loved ones.

Slave funerals in the Americas incorporated many aspects of West African funeral traditions. The body was bathed and wrapped in cloth, and laid out on a cooling board. The family gathered for a wake at night, with prayers and worship, and the body was carried to the grave before dawn. Burials would take place in the afternoon, with mourners working together to shovel the dirt to bury the deceased in the grave. Afterward, everyone would gather for a post-burial feast, the repast.

“Slave funerals served as the foundation for the successful form of black entrepreneurship in the funeral home industry,” said Dave.

Slaves, Undertaking and The Civil War

The traditions of embalming and preserving the body in underground vaults became popular in the United States during the latter half of the 19th century, when modern embalming techniques were introduced during and after the Civil War.

Prince GreerIn the Civil War, black soldiers were recruited to bury the dead and keep records of burial sites for soldiers killed in combat. A number of Union soldiers or their families pre-paid for embalming and shipment back north in the event of a soldier’s death in the war. Black assistants to doctors were trained in embalming and conducted much of the work.

The combination of experiences with slave funerals and Civil War burial and embalming prepared African-Americans to become pioneering funeral service professionals. Prince Greer was an expert embalmer during the Civil War, and the first historically recorded African-American to hold such a position.

Funeral parlors were among the first businesses opened by blacks after slavery was abolished and undertaking was a promising profession for any aspiring black entrepreneur. Many African-American funeral homes were among the first businesses to have telephones. The funeral director was a well-respected, and well-dressed, figure in the community, and the funeral home was a place of safety.

The A.D. Price Funeral Home in Richmond, VA was among the first African-American business establishments in United States. The E.F. Boyd Funeral Home in Cleveland, OH was founded in 1905. Some of these businesses are in their 5th generation of family service.

EF Boyd Funeral Home History Slideshow

Black churches began forming Burial Societies around 1900. They collected money from church members to pay for families’ funerals, coffins and graves – a forerunner to today’s pre-need funeral plans.

The National Negro Funeral Directors Association, now called the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, was established in 1907. The National Funeral Directors Association, established in 1912, barred membership by black funeral directors. Funeral service remained a segregated industry for decades, persisting into the latter half of the 20th century.

(To be continued…)

A Good Goodbye