Every culture and regional demographic has their own unique, distinct way of celebrating or commemorating the loss of their loved ones around the globe. Funeral traditions vary and can be seen on display when in a group of mourners from each area. This is certainly true in America, as different ethnicities and cultural groups all have ways of mourning and remembering the loved ones who passed away.
African-Americans have held on to their funeral traditions for centuries, bringing over tradition and ritual from Africa during the dark days of slavery in the U.S. Though slavery largely dominated every aspect of life for African-Americans for centuries, one of the few things they were able to control albeit circumstantially was the burial and funeral of their loved ones. Post-Civil War, the Black community was able to completely take over funerals and burials for their loved ones. Many of the traditions in African-American funerals today come from that time.
It’s important to note, as with any cultural discussion, that you may see some or very few of the traditions discussed below at a funeral you attend. Every family is different and, depending on their own traditions and beliefs, the traditions they choose to incorporate may change.
One of the first things you’ll notice about Christian African-American funerals is that they are called homegoings. The reason for this wording is because of the belief that deceased loved ones are going back home — home to God, peace, and freedom.
The homegoing celebration is an elaborate affair that is marked with joyous celebration, remembrance of the person’s life, open displays of sorrow, visitation with the family, sermons given by a local pastor, the singing of African spirituals, and finally the burial. The funeral is one of many parts that make up the total homegoing experience.
2. Gathering of Friends and Family
Whether for the seven-day period of visitation prior to the funeral, the two to three-day wake, or the funeral service itself, family and friends from near and far will gather for the occasion. Funerals were, and still are, an opportunity for the Black community to gather around, support one another, share in each other’s grief, and unite in celebrating the life of someone they loved.
Whether in person or through a virtual funeral, it is expected that everyone who knew the person will make an effort to attend. Even relatives that have previously been estranged or at odds with one another will settle for a truce to show up and celebrate the life of a family member.
3. Elaborate Funeral Procession
Funerals or homegoings are purposefully elaborate, detailed affairs and this is true of the procession from the family home to the church or location of the funeral service. Family members will often hire limos or luxury vehicles for transportation.
Depending on the family, the funeral procession can be anything from a serious and formal affair to a joyous celebration of life such as the second-line funeral procession frequently seen in New Orleans. Traditionally, the procession consists of family and close friends but often includes extended relatives and community members.
Whether the funeral party walks or drives, a funeral escort might be requested so the party can travel together to safely bypass stop signs and stop lights that would otherwise break up the procession.
4. Luxury Casket
Though not every family will choose to purchase an expensive or luxury casket for their loved one, many do. African-American funerals can be lavish and this is one area where they often go all-out. Luxury caskets are seen as another way to celebrate the life of the deceased. As such, if given the opportunity, many families will choose to spend a significant amount on the casket.
The overall expense of the funeral is not seen as a negative thing, as some cultures view it. Instead, when given the opportunity, many African-American families are happy to go all-out to enjoy a community gathering and life celebration in honor of their family members.
5. Adorned Casket
The casket and the area that holds it is often decorated with flowers, colorful fabric, a picture of the deceased, and other colorful decorations.
This tradition goes all the way back to Angola and Congo, where people commonly believed that graves had the power to control events in the spirit world and in the world of the living. Objects were placed on the grave to prevent the spirits of the deceased from wandering around the living world to find them.
In both African countries, a variety of items were placed on the grave from dishes and cups to favorite toys and items of furniture. These items were to help usher the deceased into the spirit world and were broken so they could only be used by the spirits and not the living.
The tradition of decorating graves and caskets remained in place though today the ritual has taken on a different meaning. Now, grave and casket decorating is one more way to respect, honor, and celebrate the deceased relative.
During the funeral, the casket might be so heavily decorated that several family members will take on the role of collector or flower gatherer when the service finishes. The flowers and items will be placed near the gravesite or taken back to the family’s house depending on how much adornment has been placed on the casket.
6. African-American Spirituals
African-American spirituals have their roots in the days of the Antebellum south. As Christianity influenced the life and culture of African-Americans, they came up with their own hymnals and spirituals. Though much of their lives were explicitly ruled and directed, their beliefs and religion could be carried out separately and in their own way.
Spirituals became the lifeblood of worship services and daily life. They were sung during nearly any occasion from daily work to weddings and funerals. As such, spirituals became something that unified every African-American community.
Today, these same spirituals are sung during funeral services. While you may recognize a few popular funeral songs, many are traditional African-American spirituals and southern gospel funeral songs. Though these songs are led by a vocalist or a group, attendees frequently join in on the singing, as the songs are often known.
Drumming does not occur at many funerals, but depending on the traditions of families, you still might see it. This tradition has been seen in African-American funerals before the Civil War, where drum beats would be used to summon the African-American community to attend a funeral.
Prior to arrival in America, some West African families would have a time of dance and drumming at funerals. This was an integral part of the celebration of a person’s life and the entire community would join in the celebration.
8. Display of Emotion
While some funerals are notably somber and attendants refrain from joy or even tears, funeral etiquette at an African-American funeral allows emotion to be on full display. As an attendant of an African-American funeral, you’ll see both an outpouring of joy over the life of the deceased and sorrow for their passing.
On one hand, African-American families display joy because they know their loved one has returned to heaven and is with God. Their sorrows are over and, if they had a full long life, the community celebrates their accomplishments and achievements. In this way, the deceased person is celebrated and there is much joy even from the mourners.
On the other hand, if the person died tragically or they were young, you might see a more extensive show of sorrow. Funerals are the one place where African-Americans are surrounded by their own community and people who inherently understand their customs and struggles they deal with. As such, they can be completely transparent with the hurt, anger, and pain they feel in the face of a tragic death of a loved one.
Their family, friends, and community will gather around them and, while joining in the expression of sorrow, show that they understand the pain and hurt experienced by the family. Hurt and pain felt by one person are felt and shared by the entire community.
9. Sermons and Prayers
At most funerals, a pastor will lead the service and share a sermon and prayer. The sermon might include the good things they witnessed in the life of the deceased or encouragement for funeral goers to live a life worthy of heaven. They will then pray for the family, in memory of the deceased, and for the attendants.
Eulogies for the deceased are given by multiple people including the pastor, family, and friends. Though, as with any funeral, time limits are given to each speaker, more often than not these limits are seen as guidelines rather than strict rules.
Some people will speak more than once and the time is flexible. Anyone with a connection to the deceased is allowed to speak. Frequently family members, friends, and coworkers will all have a chance to give a eulogy for the deceased.
Eulogies are the time to show respect and remember the contributions of the deceased for anything memorable they did during their lives. It’s also an opportunity to share what the speaker will miss about the deceased and how they’ll carry on their legacy, if applicable.
Slideshows are often put together to play at the funeral and encompass a person’s entire life. Pictures and clips are displayed from birth through the time just before they passed away.
Their major accomplishments and contributions will be highlighted, as will major life events such as college graduation, marriage, children, and owning a business.
African-Americans Funeral Traditions Celebrate Life
African-American funerals focus on celebrating someone’s life rather than focusing on their death. Though the person is gone, their legacy and memory will live on, starting with a time of celebration and remembrance at their funeral.
- Jamieson, Ross. “Material Culture and Social Death: African-American Burial Practices.” Historical Archaeology, University of Calgary, 2020. users.clas.ufl.edu/davidson/Historical%20archaeology%20fall%202015/Week%2012%20Mortuary/Jamieson%201995.pdf.
- Harris, Ida. “Black Funerals are a Radical Testament to Blackness.” The Death Issue, Yes Magazine, 21 August 2019. yesmagazine.org/issue/death/opinion/2019/08/21/funeral-black-african-american-radical-blackness/.
- Stanley, Tiffany. “The Disappearance of a Distinctively Black Way to Mourn.” Business, The Atlantic, 26 January 2016. theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/black-funeral-homes-mourning/426807/
- Nichols, Elaine. “African American Funeral and Mourning Customs in South Carolina.” Articles, South Writ Large, Fall 2013. southwritlarge.com/articles/african-american-funeral-and-mourning-customs-in-south-carolina/
- Griffin, Jakara. “Home-Goings: A Black American Funeral Tradition.” Anthropological Perspectives on Death, Emory University, 23 April 2017. scholarblogs.emory.edu/gravematters/2017/04/23/home-goings-a-black-american-funeral-tradition/