A personal and historical account of the particular place of death and funerals in African American life.
Chicken Bones: A Journal
Virigina Quarterly Review
Read an Excerpt
"Soon one morning,
when this life is over ...
I'll fly away."
"Who's Got the Body?"
THE BUSINESS OF BURIAL
Quiet as it's kept, if the question "Who's got the body?" had been asked very early in the twentieth century, the answer could have been white folk. Given the decided weight of that century's experience with a clear separation between blacks and whites, including funeral home professionals and their clientele, the brief anomaly of these early-century shared mortuarial spaces were nearly as remarkable as the fact that at the end of almost a century of separation, black folk began to return to white businesses for the burial of their dead. While African American funereal practicesfrom rituals surrounding death and dying to the business of burial itselfhave always depended on a long history of allegiances, this is a specifically twentieth-century narrative of color and class, mortuarial and ministerial alliances, and ceremony and performance. The specific and certain cultural identity of these stories may be the last of their kind. All indications are that the twenty-first century will form a different narrative.
We can give you better service
When the century began, many communities in the United States had no black funeral homes. Even though, for example, there had been a black funeral business in Louisville, Kentucky, owned and operated since the 1920s by S. Leroy Mason, just across the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, Indiana, a white mortician would have "had"black bodies, at least for the preliminaries of embalming. There was no local black funeral home in Jeffersonville until Henry Mason, Leroy's son, opened one on Watt Street in 1948. Prior to its opening, black families who wanted their deceased relatives embalmed were forced to use back doors and basement entrances of white mortuaries. Even in death, the color line was a persistentalbeit sometimes ambiguousline of demarcation.
Although the involvement of a white undertaker in Jeffersonville was a necessity, it created an additional psychological burden for African Americans when death occurred in their community. White violence, including the vicious practice of lynching, was complicit in too many black deaths, and whites were often as disrespectful to black bodies in death as they were in life. The biased social codes of the day were very much in play. So, when black men embraced the burial business, they were responding not only to a business opportunity but also to a sense of cultural responsibility and community necessity. Black families knew black morticiansthey were our kin, our neighbors, our fellow congregants in Sunday worship services. However, despite the ease of intimacy African Americans had with these businesses, or whether our familiarity with them came from their relationships to family or community, the burial business was not the unproblematic enterprise that is legend. Instead and predictably, the laws of segregation, Jim Crow practices, and discriminatory conduct made it certain that a black undertaker would endure aggressive challenges of racism in arranging for the burial of black folk.
In some communities, black undertakers were vulnerable to violent reprisals for threatening a secure income source for white undertakers. Writer LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) described this as the experience of his grandfather, an entrepreneur who owned two grocery stores as well as a funeral parlor in his home in Alabama, but whose business acumen was compromised by his cultural kinship. Each of his enterprises was "burned out from under him," and he eventually had to escape the county, fleeing north in search of sanctuary from the white terrorists whose ideas about race did not include black men as managers or owners of commercial ventures (Leroi Jones 96). Jones's grandfather's undertaking business could have emerged as a particular kind of racialized opportunity for black folk in a country that had consistently denied entrepreneurship to its black citizenry. It was, after all, a business that involved the most intimate kind of contact with the black bodyand even the potential for interracial contact such as this shaped the angst that motivated white racism. However, like other racialized responses in America, the reactive anger of whites toward blacks who practiced undertaking belied reason or expectation. And, as a consequence, black men who moved into these professional roles found themselves forced to take courageous advantage of the era.
Just before World War I, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi's, black township, Piney Woods, Malachi Collins and E.W. Hall opened the county's first black funeral home. The event so aggravated Hattiesburg's white undertaker, who had had the embalming business of Piney Woods blacks, that he passed out handbills in the black community with the warning "Don't patronize these niggers, we can give you better service" (McMillen 92). It was not difficult to intuit that his warning was contained in the directive ("don't patronize"), rather than the declaration ("we can give you better"), and Collins and Hall had to take the threat seriously. When their business first opened, the tense atmosphere actually forced the partners to take turns with an armed patrolling of the premises each night. Although this challenged inauguration prefigured many years of intimidation and threats, Hall and Collins Funeral Home weathered the hostility and survived for many years (McMillen 193).
In other communities, if competition did not itself motivate the violence, the Ku Klux Klan stepped into the vacuum. When William Ragsdale Sr. of Muskogee, Oklahoma, opened the Home Undertaking Company in the last decade of the 1800s, he hoped it would be a successful transition from his business as a horse-and-carriage supplier for funeral services and other community events. But he also anticipated that Klan violence could be provoked by this new enterprise. He knew their bloody ritualthey had already murdered one of his sons in a confrontation that had at its root their anger at his entrepreneurship. Although it was traditional for a family business to display a surname as a means of claiming the family's concerns, Ragsdale did not. Instead, he selected something to mask his ownership ("People's," and later "Home," Undertaking), hoping that this less-public declaration might forestall attack and protect his family (and his business) from the Klan's violent attention.
There were already habits of tradition in the 1900s that would follow the funeral business in America, which already had nearly a century of practice, into the next hundred years. The term undertaker, in reference to a skilled occupation, had appeared in popular usage sometime during the first half of the 1600s. At that time, undertaking was not much more involved than arranging for removal of a body, securing a casket (even though families often made their own), and burying the dead. This labor was not nearly as evolved as it was to become when, at the turn of the century, critical innovations transformed the labor into a skilled profession. These innovations included the manufacturing of coffins, the development of a widely accepted process of embalming, and the professionalizing of the practitioners. Of this new generation of American undertakers, Prince Greer was among the first blacks to practice embalming. Greer was the "colored assistant" to Nashville businessman W. R. Cornelius, who had been contracted to embalm civil war soldiers. Cornelius explained that he "undertook the embalming myself with a colored assistant named Prince Greer who appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he became himself an expert." Greer continued to work successfully with Cornelius during the remainder of the war (Habenstein and Lamers  210).
The skills, techniques, and formulas that developed during and immediately after the Civil War years led to the institutionalization of the trade, which included the building of specific establishments with the requisite equipment to do on-site embalming. And, although business practices steadily evolved, generational memory haunted many in the profession. Thus, although black mortuary businesses followed a line of development somewhat parallel to their white counterparts, they diverged significantly in cultural matters and economic stability. One elderly member of the profession told me how, during the early years of his Louisiana practice, although he had the "facilities" in an office, he would also embalm bodies in the houses where they died, "right up there on their beds." At the beginning of the twentieth century, undertakers doing this work in homes would place a decorative funeral emblema badge or ribbonon front doors as a signal to the neighborhood not just that someone had died but also that certain rites were being performed in the house. The funeral wreaths that still appear on the homes of deceased Southernersblack and white alikeecho this history. I heard an almost wistful tone in the voices of two Louisiana morticians who told me about their profession. The elder explained his early-century practices in exquisite detail: "First, we'd use a hand pump to get the blood out. [Rubber tubing] led from the body to the jar and after it would get full, we'd just open a window and just pass the whole bottle outside." He also explained how he and his assistant would run a tube through a keyhole to fumigate the formaldehyde smell of the room after an embalming. As for the body fluids that had been replaced with the embalming mixture, "One of my assistants would dig a hole in the ground outside, and that's where we put the blood. We just poured it in and covered it back up right where it was." He doesn't have much respect for modern, manufactured embalming chemicals. "Back then," he explained, "we'd just mix our own [solution of formaldehyde, alcohol, glycerin, borax, and water]. And it was better than this stuff they give us now."
As a mortician, the undertaker became a skilled technician, a transition that led to the occupation's professionalization and its incorporation of trade organizations and institutes, training and educational requirements, regulatory systems, licensure, and schools into its environment. Despite segregation, black professionals were able to take advantage of some of the schooling that emerged, especially in the North. For those who remained in the South, the practices of Nashville's Gupton-Jones school were the norm. When it opened in the 1920s, its calendar echoed the racial separatism of the era: black students attended the professional courses that began in February and July, while white students attended classes that began in November and May (Wilson 24).
During that same decade, one of the better known northern professional schoolsthe Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Chicago, Illinoiswas critical to the development of the black funeral businesses due to its African American graduates. In my conversations with some of those graduates, they noted that it was one of the few accredited schools and it was "the" place for the elite of the African American community to get their credentials. A 1930s graduate spoke to me with a clear sense of pride and accomplishment about that degree, noting that, when you went to Worsham, "you were really somebody special. We had real cadavers to work onbecause all the poor, you know the unclaimed bodies at the Cook County Morgue, we went and did all the autopsies on them. And we only had a year to learn our anatomybut we used the same textbooks as the medical students, and they had two years to memorize theirs. A Worsham graduate knew everything about anatomy that they did."
Given the rampant segregationist impulse of early-twentieth-century America, there was very little shared commerce between black and white funeral parlors. A "colored undertaker" explained that "'Twenty-five years ago we had competition from the white undertakers [but] they bury few Negroes now'" (Drake 456). Although most blacks in Houston, Texas, historically patronized white businesses, those that "offered services specifically oriented toward black needsbarber shops, beauty salons, photographers, and funeral homesencountered little outside competition" (Beeth 93; emphasis mine). Nevertheless there were those renegade few who, like Decatur, Illinois's, "leading white undertaker," who, when a "Negro mortician opened his business" there, reportedly declared, "I will bury Negroes for nothing before I let a Negro bury them!" ("Death is Big Business" 18). Whether it emerged through racist violence or competition, maltreatment or segregation, the specific, racially defined sociocultural environment of the century's early years supported the development of black-owned and -operated businesses.
Those white undertaking establishments that did provide the service of embalming for the black community frequently subjected their black consumers to disparaging and demeaning treatment. Back doors, basement entries, casual and careless night-time and after-hours services characterized what commerce there was between the black community and the white undertakers. Memories of the disrespect for black bodies in those early days ran deep among professionals of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and was generationally passed on. John Scarborough Sr.'s father opened a funeral home in North Carolina in 1888, partially prompted by his experience with white morticians who "would keep the bodies of whites upstairs in his establishment as they awaited burial, while dead blacks were hidden in the basement" (Chen IE). Historian Cheryl Greenberg explained that African American "beauticians, undertakers, and a few others offered services the white community was unwilling to provide" (27), as well as services that they did grudgingly provide. And cultural ethnographers St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, writing midcentury, recalled the early years in the black South Side of Chicago, Illinois, when "Negro undertakers [had] a virtual monopoly on burying the colored dead," because most of the white undertakers never "catered to the Negro business [or] conducted a Negro funeral."
When white morticians did have access to black bodies, it was generally not to bring a body to burial but merely to do the embalming. One can easily appreciate, given the biological factors at play, how an adequate embalming could assure the potential of a burial with which one could exercise some flexibility. In other words, no matter who had the body, it was important that somebody have at it rather quickly. Blacks had no investment in skipping embalming for reasons of racial politics or pride, especially because the embalmed body could assure the potential of a funeral and burial service where a black minister, congregation, friends, and family could officiate, gather, mourn, and be comforted within the community's norms. Whites, on the other hand, had little interest or place at the services commemorating the black dead. So, when white undertakers performed the first step, they then returned the bodies to the family or to a black preacher for burial and funeral services.
The ministerial association with the business of burial would emerge as a strong presence in black communities. Morticians were "very careful to maintain wide connections with lodges, churches, and civic and social clubs," even to the extent of negotiating with ministers to "have funerals thrown their way. Some pastors advertise a special undertaker for their church and use various forms of subtle pressure to force their members to use him. In fact, the undertaker's name appears on many church bulletin boards beside that of the pastor" (Drake 457).
As black mortuary and funeral directors' businesses were formed, they emerged into communities that already had well-established church histories and practices. In addition to the consistent role of the preacher in the black church as arranger of funerals and burial services, the especially traumatic and frequent situations of African American death and dying and the vigorous presence of the black church community in offering solace on those occasions paved the way for an intimate association between the church and these black businessmen. Indeed, the fact that many black funeral homes were themselves owned and operated by preachers indicated the degree of intimacy the institutions shared.
Preston Taylor, a nineteenth-century black undertaker in Nashville, Tennessee, was also the pastor of a church. Taylor opened his Taylor and Company Undertakers on Cherry Street in 1888, taking over the business of Thomas Winston who had operated an "undertaker shop" from the end of the Civil War until he died in 1888. Five years later, Taylor had the "largest and most prestigious" funeral home in the city. His city-wide renown was assured when, in 1892, he conducted the funeral for three black firemen who died fighting a downtown fire. Taylor constructed "an ingenious carriage" to carry the three firemen's bodies "side by side during the public funeral procession" (Lovett 109). The pathos of the moment and the dramatic history of expression and performance of the black church were perfectly paired within the context of black death and dying. The close association of pastor and mortician represented a consummate merger of cradle-to-grave services as two institutions that were both consistently defined through their racial exclusivity shared clientele for the most critical ceremonies in life. The preacherly connection articulated a necessary relationship between that profession and the consistent needs of the black community, and it prospered because of the way in which, in the black community, ceremony and eventwhether political or socialhad a historic center in the black church.
An additional dimension of the early-twentieth-century evolution of the black funeral home was the way in which the role and perception of the mortician in the black community were closely associated with issues of class and social status. As the twentieth century began, the black undertaker emerged as a businessman in a community of few independent black-owned businesses. Sometimes, he was the only one, other than the preacher, who wore a suit during the week, and the fact that it may have been his only suit mattered less than the fact that his business gave him license to wear it on some day other than Sunday. Indeed, the "24/7" suit and the authority it brought were not insignificant considerations in the decisions of some young men to go into "the business." It was an important and visible sign of status, and although the income may have sometimes been paltry, the look was always prosperous. Nashville's Preston Taylor was reportedly a "leading member" of the city's black elite and, as in many communities, the burial business in Nashville was a significant dimension of a newly emerging black middle class. One new businessman, Andrew Johnson, moved to Nashville from Alabama in 1907 and, in an effort to establish himself as successfully as possible, brought with him credentials that would signify his statusa letter of introduction from Booker T. Washington. Johnson subsequently did very well. At the "height of the local Negro business progressive movement," he not only served as an undertaker but also built and operated the Majestic, Nashville's first black theater (Lovett 109).
The accomplishments and status of the black mortician are especially notable in the comparative. His stature was earned in part through his appearance and his acquisitions: his dress, accumulation of cars (even though they were a part of his business), and ownership of property (whether storefront or an entire building). Such things distinguished him in a community for whom these highly visible acquisitions were rare. In a caustic analysis of the black bourgeoisie, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier wrote of "Negro 'society' [as] constituted largely of professional and business men and women with large incomes that enable them to engage in conspicuous consumption" (200). It is not surprising that Frazier would include undertakers among his culprits of the new black bourgeoisie and their "conspicuous" displays of wealth, for the black undertaker's business required some appreciation of dramatic display. In 1953, Ebony Magazine ran a multipage pictorial feature, "Death is Big Business," declaring undertakers as among "the most influential men in Negro society." This popular African American monthly noted the "public demand for extravagant funerals" and defended this demand as cultural legacy, quoting one mortician who even believed that "some Africans went so far as to sell themselves and their children into slavery to give a relative a proper funeral." The unnamed mortician concluded his analysis saying: "Some of the modern day families are almost as bad" (27). Understanding the cultural expectation and catering to it, perhaps in the extreme, Preston Taylor's Nashville funerals had horses adorned to match the colors of his funeral wagons and drivers who were clothed in identically colored uniforms. But the image-making of this business was more complex than ensuring a spectacular final appearance of the dead. Undertakers were also significantly invested in matching their own image to the culture's expectations of the business. Historian Lovett wrote that the "Negro masses were impressed by these elite men with their fine horses, carriages, and business houses" (109). Black funeral parlors melded into this environment, with morticians and funeral directors advertising their businesses in ways that dramatized the "mortician." The opening of a new funeral parlor was usually "news," and sometimes included a "bevy of charming ladies ... on hand to serve all in attendance to a sumptuous tea and refreshments" (Drake 457).
Despite the changes of class and culture that have made a significant impact in the ways and means of African America, the response to the postmortem inquiry "Who's got the body?" was not, at the end of the century, insignificant. The answer was telling, not only in immediate terms of knowing where to send the traditional floral tribute but in understanding something of class and communitythe social place, the cultural milieu and moment of the deceased and the family. When a black family was bereaved, matters involving church affairs, culturally colored politics, social class, and profession all came into play. These kinds of issues and considerations affected a family's choices as much as the selection of the black funeral homes that "had" black bodies throughout the twentieth century. Privy to the most intimate family affairs and poised to arrange the final public presentation, the morticians' undertaking entered a once-in-a-lifetime arrangement, sharing the specific privacy and intimacy of this moment, and yet being responsible for orchestrating a public performance often not matched in the entire lifetime of the deceased. Among many other considerations, appearance counted.
In the 1900s, it was traditional in African American communities to leave the casket open for viewing sometime during the wake and church services. A laying-on of hands, touching, kissing, and expressing one's grief by viewing the remains have traditionally mattered deeply. African American morticians certainly encouraged these practices because they made more money when families decided to embalm a body and make it available for viewing. Theirs was, however, an encouragement that resided easily within African American traditions that respected the emotional power of the presence of the deceased. It was a practice that additionally recalled west African funeral traditions in which the family and the deceased were honored with visitations that indicated respect and esteem. In the United States, however, the tradition also represented a different kind of memorializing, as it recognized specific evidence of the racialized violence done to black bodies. For example, when Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, hundreds of thousands lined South Side Chicago streets to view his remains. After Till's mother received the lynched, mutilated remains of her son and had arranged for the funeralizing and burial, she insisted on an open casket "so that the world could see what they had done to my child" (Powledge 44).
Excerpted from Passed On by Karla FC Holloway. Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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