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Honoring African Americans: Celebrating Life in Death – African American Funeral Homes

This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

“The condition of black life is one of mourning.” – Claudia Rankine

two glass caissons each being pulled by two horse standing in front of the undertaking business

Horses and carriages in front of funeral home of C.W. Franklin, undertaker, Chattanooga, Tennessee, ca 1899.
//www.loc.gov/item/93517224/

Black owned and operated funeral homes have a rich heritage and are as much cultural institutions as they are businesses. They were among the first family businesses established by African Americans after the abolition of slavery, in a trade that was and remains largely segregated along racial, ethnic, and religious lines.  African American funeral homes maintain traditions surrounding death that cater to the needs of the black community, including burials, wakes, and home visits.

Prior to the Civil War, death was more of a family experience, as the body of the deceased was prepared and displayed in the family home. The death services industry developed during the Civil War when the bodies of soldiers needed to be embalmed for transportation for burial, and this service moved from a trade to a professional business. African American entrepreneurs in this field were brought into the middle and upper classes where they often became leadership figures in their communities.

Many within the industry view the business as a spiritual calling and are honored to have the privilege of counseling and helping people at a difficult time in their lives. Funeral service workers organize and manage the details of a ceremony honoring a deceased person, and their duties include: offering counsel and comfort to families; providing information on funeral service options; and filing death certificates and other legal documents. African American funeral directors maintain burial traditions as home-going or celebration of life ceremonies and honor a distinctive way of grieving. This often includes a level of theater and pageantry. The Library of Congress has some sound recordings of funeral sermons from the late 1890s.

10 gentlemen of the National Negro Business League including a seated Booker T Washington

National Negro Business League Executive Committee, Bain News Service, publisher.
//www.loc.gov/item/2014688320/

The Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) includes a collection of Funeral Services Workers in the Carolinas, and these interviews are available digitally to you. In listening to these interviews, I came away understanding the funeral directors’ role as a pastoral counselor offering support, guidance, dignity, respect, and making a difference in people’s lives under very trying circumstances.

The National Association of Negro Funeral Directors was established as a professional organization affiliated with the National Negro Business League, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900. The League worked to advance the commercial and financial development of African Americans, with the ultimate goal of bringing African American families into the middle class through a variety of professional careers. The organization continues to exist today as the National Business League.

Carnie Bragg in a gray suite standing in front of the brick building that housed the bragg funeral home

Carnie Bragg, owner of Bragg Funeral Home, poses in front of the business, 1994. From the Working in Paterson Project Collection.
//www.loc.gov/item/afcwip003761/

The funeral director and his family often lived upstairs in the funeral parlor, and without access to traditional credit markets, the business was a family affair. The family business at times branched out into real estate or transportation and has evolved into providing other services. Today, the majority of the funeral businesses remain small, local, and typically family-owned independent businesses. There are currently four publicly traded consolidators of funeral homes and cemeteries, and these companies at times absorb family-owned funeral parlors where there is not a desire to continue the family business, or if there is a difficulty staying afloat due to wealth and credit gaps. In 2016, the annual revenue of the U.S. funeral industry amounted to about $14.2 billion; this being generated from 15,818 funeral homes, as well as crematoriums, cemeteries, and industry suppliers. Approximately 1,200 of these funeral homes are family-owned African American independent businesses.

Funeral parlors operate by reputation and word of mouth and are built around relationships. They do not generally advertise in a traditional way, as they thrive on client loyalty.  Funeral directors are often leaders in their community, providing care and dignity to the deceased, and are often a base of operation within a neighborhood. Undertakers are generally college educated, having studied mortuary science, and are apprenticed to learn their craft. Historically, the Civil Rights movement benefited from the resources of African American funeral directors, who provided financial support and gathering spaces to the movement.

white label with black print includes a nutrition facts chart as well as the address at 497 second street in Ayden North Carolina

Label from a promotional water bottle distributed by Don Brown Funeral Home, Ayden, North Carolina, 2016. Part of the Occupational Folklife Project, American Folklife Center.
//www.loc.gov/item/2020655352/

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Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.

 

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