There are many cultures in the United States that have unique funeral customs. Some have existed for hundreds of years, while others have developed slowly over time.
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One of the country’s oldest funeral traditions, as well as one of the most adapted to modern life, is the African American homegoing celebration. Whether you’ve heard of homegoing celebrations before or not, there’s always more to learn.
If you’re invited to a homegoing celebration, you might not know what to expect. This article will help you learn more about homegoing celebrations in the United States and prepare to attend one.
What’s a Homegoing Celebration?
A homegoing celebration is a Christian, African American traditional funeral service. Rather than only mourning a person’s departure from this life, homegoing celebrations view death in a positive light.
At a homegoing celebration, family members, friends, and the community rejoice. They take part in joyous celebrations, knowing that their loved one has returned to heaven.
But while a homegoing celebration has a positive tone, it’s a tradition deeply rooted in tragedy. The elaborate rituals known as homegoings can be traced back to the arrival of African Slaves to the U.S. in the 1600s.
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Typical Homegoing Program or Service
Several unique traditions make homegoing celebrations stand out from traditional American funerals.
From the week-long visitation period prior to the memorial, to the elaborate wake and funeral service, homegoing celebrations are worth learning about in-depth.
Program sample and order of service
A homegoing celebration occurs in several steps, listed and described below:
1. Visitation week
The homegoing service begins with a week-long visit to the bereaved family. During these seven days, family members, friends, and other community members travel from near and far to offer condolences to the family.
The same people may visit the house every day, or different people might appear each day.
Two to three days before the funeral service, the community often holds a wake for the deceased.
This open-casket viewing allows family and friends to have personal time with the departed, beyond the few short seconds normally alotted at a funeral.
3. Escort to the funeral
When the day of the funeral arrives, it’s customary to arrange a formal funeral procession from the family home to the church. Often, family members will take limousines or other luxury transportation to lend the procession an air of formality.
It’s also common to arrange a police escort. Several uniformed police officers will arrive at the family home and escort the procession to the church. This allows the funeral party to bypass some traffic laws, like stopping for red lights.
4. Flower placement and decoration
One of the crucial parts of a homegoing celebration is decorating the casket. This will likely happen during the wake, but it will also occur at the formal funeral service.
Traditionally, several women in the family arrange large floral bouquets and adorn the casket.
5. Funeral service
Finally, the funeral service takes place. The service is Christian and led by a pastor. It’s traditionally a highly emotional event.
It consists of singing traditional African American and Christian hymns and an energetic eulogy given by the pastor. Family members and friends usually give eulogies after the sermon. Some mourners may give multiple eulogies, separated by song or other speakers.
Although there might have been a wake before the funeral, most homegoing celebrations feature a final viewing. The congregation forms a line to walk up to the casket and see the deceased one last time. At the end of this final viewing, the casket is ceremonially and finally closed.
After the service, the procession travels to the gravesite. Attendees watch as the casket is lowered into the ground and partially buried.
After the burial, family members and friends return to the bereaved’s household or to the church for a meal.
Homegoing celebrations often feature singing. This can be in the form of a choir, joined by funeral attendees. Or attendees may sing hymns without the aid of a choir.
The songs are traditionally Christian hymns, as well as African American gospel funeral songs and funeral hymns. Some of the hymns you might hear at a homegoing celebration are:
- What a Friend We Have in Jesus
- Jesus is a Rock in a Weary Land
- It is Well with My Soul
It’s also common for more modern songs to play at a homegoing celebration. These will usually be songs that were favorites of the departed or feature religious themes or deal with loss.
A pastor delivers a heartfelt sermon at a homegoing celebration. The sermon will generally be personalized to suit the departed, their family, and the circumstances under which they passed.
The pastor typically knows the family from years of attending church together, so he or she will be able to speak from the heart. He or she will also deliver energetic prayers directed towards God and pieces of scripture, sometimes joined by an organ.
During the sermon and prayers, it’s not uncommon for congregation members to clap and cheer in agreement. The sermon is a time for the pastor to help the congregation put their grief—and joy—into words.
Relevant poems or quotes
The central belief of a homegoing celebration is that the deceased is going home to heaven. The celebration revolves around Christian themes. Some quotes that represent the sentiment of a homegoing celebration include:
- “Death is not extinguishing the light. It is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.” Rabindranath Tagore
- “That life never ends for him who believes; that heaven begins with our last breath.” Joseph L. Campanello
- “I believe the worst regret in life is to miss the ultimate goal—our eternal home, heaven.” Robert Rogers
- “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” Thomas Moore
If you’re planning to attend a homegoing celebration for the first time, it’s important to know the proper etiquette. Additionally, you should know who will be there, and what you can bring as a gift to the family.
The mood of a homegoing celebration is highly emotional. Mourners might cry out in joy or in grief. While the tone of a homegoing service is positive (celebrating the life of the departed and his or her return to heaven), everyone there will still be mourning the loss.
It’s important to keep in mind that a homegoing is a celebration of life, as well as a hard-felt goodbye. Homegoing celebrations are often more interactive than other Christian funerals. The pastor or eulogizer usually interacts with the congregation easily and personally.
Family members and friends travel from near and far to attend a homegoing celebration. The local community—especially members of the church—get involved, too.
A homegoing celebration usually takes place in the church where the family attends regular service. If the family is close to their church congregation, they might invite everyone to the funeral ceremony.
Offering gifts, condolences, flowers, and donations
For seven days before the funeral service, the homegoing celebration takes place in the household of the bereaved. During that week-long visitation period, family and friends bring gifts of food and flowers, and they offer their sincere condolences.
If you’re invited to the visitation, consider cooking something that the family will enjoy. Keep in mind that they’ll likely have many gifts arriving during this time, so keep it light and small.
You’ll also want to check the funeral notice—your invitation or the post in a newspaper—for an “In Lieu of Flowers” notification. Families sometimes ask funeral attendees to make a charity donation instead of buying gifts.
Modern Homegoing Celebrations in America
African American homegoing celebrations have been around since the 1600s. But in more recent years, the tradition has started to fade. Funeral homes owned by African American funeral directors have struggled to keep their doors open. And families have started opting for low-cost cremation in place of a traditional funeral and burial.
If you have the opportunity to attend a traditional homegoing celebration, be prepared to experience one of America’s oldest funeral services. At the same time, know that you’ll be taking part in a mourning ceremony that’s distinctly modern.
It’s a funerary tradition with roots in the past, but one that’s changed over time and adjusted to current-day limitations and expectations.
- Griffin, Jakara K. “Home-goings: A Black American Funeral Tradition.” Emory University. 23 April 2017. scholarblogs.emory.edu/gravematters/2017/04/23/home-goings-a-black-american-funeral-tradition/
- Stanley, Tiffany. “The Disappearance of a Distinctively Black Way to Mourn.” The Atlantic. 26 January 2016. www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/black-funeral-homes-mourning/426807/