funerals have gained some notoriety of late, first The Learning Channel
(TLC) aired a feature reality show based in a funeral home in Dallas where
elaborate and unusual homegoing funerals were staged. Now, Christine
Turner, a filmmaker in New York has made a documentary centered around
an African-American funeral home in Harlem, NY that caters to their black
community with a rich heritage of homegoing rituals.
So why is it called a ‘homegoing’?
The simplest explanation for
the term ‘homegoing’ is that it represents the religious connotation of
the deceased “going home”, to heaven and glory, and to be with the Lord.
It is a Christian based service, most commonly held in a chapel or church.
The deceased is most commonly buried, after a very elaborate service, as
the belief is held that their body will be resurrected. A homegoing
funeral is often referred to as a “homegoing celebration’ as it is considered
that it should be an uplifting event celebrating the return of the soul
to the eternal glory.
How did the heritage of homegoing
The heritage of the homegoing
funeral ritual has its origins back in Ancient Egypt. The ancient
African Egyptian people had a rich culture of preparing for a funeral and
preserving the deceased for their ‘after-life’. This could be noted
as the origins of people of color demonstrating elaborate funeral practices.
owners, especially as the number
of slaves on a plantation could begin to outnumber the plantation owner’s
family and managers. So white Christian religion was introduced to
the slaves to help pacify and subjugate them.
|This rich black
heritage was brought to the United States during the era of slavery.
During slavery the black communities were not permitted to gather to conduct
their funeral rituals for fear that they would conspire to revolt.
Slaves that died were ordinarily just buried without any ceremony in un-marked
graves in non-crop producing ground. However, at the same time slaves
would be responsible for the preparation of the deceased plantation owner’s
family following a death and preparing the elaborate family gatherings
held to mourn the deceased.
Controlling the repressed
slaves and preventing an uprising was an ever-difficult task for the plantation
“Control came in the form
of hiring missionaries to introduce Christianity to the slaves. This was
not out of concern for their immortal soul, because they were regarded
as less than human, but to introduce the concept and fear of the eternal
fires of hell for acts of disobedience to God and master. Slave owners
recognized that their slaves were spiritually inclined, clinging to ancestral
and tribal beliefs and practices, but they never suspected the enthusiasm
with which the slaves would embrace the "white man's: religion.” Erich
The slave population completely
embraced the bible. The Old Testament story of a captive and enslaved
race, helped to freedom and the ‘promised land’ by God and Moses, resonated
with their own enslavement. The New Testament story of Jesus’ promise
of glory in heaven and riches far greater than those available in the mortal
world, helped slaves take solace that their day of glory would come when
they returned to the Lord.
After the introduction of
Christianity, the laws changed and black communities were permitted to
hold assembly for religious services and funerals. And so funerals
and religious activities became the bedrock of early African-American culture,
but in difference to the traditional funerals that the plantation owners
held, the slaves held jubilant, celebratory funeral rituals.
This must have seemed quite
bewildering to the white Christians who regarded that church services,
and indeed funerals, should be somber, reserved events. What they
did not comprehend is that the black slaves saw death as a release and
the opportunity to be free at last. With no hope of ever returning
to their native homeland, death was perceived as the glorious release from
a life of suffering and the chance to “go home” and live in glory and riches
in the kingdom of heaven.
It is this legacy of ‘going
home’, and achieving a greater glory, that resonates with African-American
funeral traditions today. Understandably when many African-Americans
can still feel repressed and live in less than adequate circumstances,
it is quite clear to see how the heritage of homegoing is still so important.
Black Funeral Homes – a tradition
of service and pride
In their subservient roles in
early American culture, many within the black community held positions
of responsibility for caring for the dead, and thus a tradition was borne.
During the Civil War, Black soldiers removed the dead from the battlefields,
kept death records, and were some of the first involved in learning preservation
skills. In fact, people of color held many assistant positions to
military doctors and so learned further anatomy and embalming skills that
positioned them for service within the funeral industry.
At the turn of the 19th Century,
Black churches began to form Burial Societies to assist their congregation
in preplanning funeral services, and funeral parlors were among some of
the first businesses set up by African-Americans after the abolition of
The heritage of the black
mortuary has a long tradition of being a family business passed from generation
to generation. In the communities they serve, the funeral director
is regarded highly for his dedicated and compassionate service to his community.
As homegoing funerals can be extensive family affairs, the funeral director
takes exceptional pride in delivering a befitting homegoing service that
the family feel will most effectively pay tribute to their loved one and
bring them comfort as they say their final goodbyes.
Today Black funeral homes
in the US still maintain this rich heritage of funeral service. The
trade association that represents this heritage is the National Funeral
Directors & Morticians Association (NFD&MA) which is the world's
largest and oldest national association of African American funeral directors,
morticians and embalmers.
||Expert Author: Sara
Sara is the Editor in Chief
for US Funerals Online and has been researching and writing about the death
care industry in the US for the last 5 years.
Funeral Directors & Morticians Association
‘Home Going: A Spirit-Centered Ethnography Exploring the Transformative
Journey of Documenting Gullah/Geechee Funerals’ by Michelle Lainer
a documentary about African-American death rituals
The African American
Funeral Custom: Our "Home Going" Heritage by Erich March