‘Homegoing’ 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 eternal glory.
How did the heritage of homegoing funerals evolve?
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.
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 unmarked 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 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.
“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 March
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 an 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 slavery.
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.
National Funeral Directors Association
Thesis ‘HomeGoing: A Spirit-Centered Ethnography Exploring the Transformative Journey of Documenting Gullah/Geechee Funerals’ by Michelle Lainer
The African American Funeral Custom: Our “Home Going” Heritage by Erich March