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
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.
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.
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.
- Read To serve the living: funeral directors and the African American way of death by Suzanne E. Smith and Passed on: African American mourning stories: a memorial by Karla FC Holloway.
- Explore the Occupational Folklife Project, Library of Congress – Interviews of Funeral Service Workers in the Carolinas which includes a recorded interview with Don Brown. You can also search the OFP to find funeral directors interviewed for other projects. The Project began in 2010 as a multi-year project by the American Folklife Center to document the culture of contemporary American workers during an era of economic and social transition. To date, fieldworkers across the United States have recorded more than 900 audio and audiovisual oral history interviews with workers in scores of trades, industries, and crafts.
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.
Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Inside Adams — it’s free!