CAN LEGACY’S BE REVIVED? THE EXTINCTION OF TRADITIONAL FUNERALS
Black funeral houses in more than a century now have been providing funeral services to the black societies in the US safeguarding the African American funeral culture. Unfortunately the tradition, despite all challenges it has survived, is almost disappearing now due to changes in market influences. As of present, Dr. Carol Williams, the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association (NFDMA) director says the organization members have reduced drastically. In 1997, members were up to 2000 in numbers but now about 1,200 as many are unable to maintain the business.
Black funeral services are quite different than other American tradition: The body of the dead is viewed in an open luxurious casket decorated with flowers and beautiful clothing, big and beautiful cars escorting families to give a feel of pride and delight during the procession. This whole process is done to offer a triumphant and blissful home -going Black Americans are given the respect they didn’t receive while they lived in death through Home-goings. Black funeral traditions also allow the bereaved family to mourn in comfort knowing they are among their own with no prejudice. According to Holloway, Their traditional practices are remembered and honored in a black funeral home and such feelings are important in the heart of the mourners.
African Americans have from the beginning experienced untimely death; diseases, forced labor and slavery. This makes funeral rituals important in the black community which also became the basis of the community church tradition. From the beginning, black funerals were revolution towards the authority in place. Especially between the 17th &18th century, as slaves could perform their own funeral traditions far off the authority watch, their freedom could also be planned.
The war that ended slavery also brought a change to funerals in the entire America. Not only doctors and scientist were using embalming for dead bodies but also undertakers who pitched a tent by the war side providing embalming services to war bodies before they reach home for burial. The practice of embalming and caring for dead became profitable and professionalized as many were dying in hospitals rather than home and African Americans too took up on the opportunity for wealth creation.
The funeral business gave room for a class of wealthy African Americans as noted in a headline ‘Death is Business’ in Smith book called the Ebony magazine. In essence, for an average American family, a funeral service became the 3rd costly expenditure next to cost of acquiring a house and a car.
Presently, the funeral industry is booming with a yearly yield of around $16 billion as given in the National Funeral Directors Association data; an association bigger than NFDMA and most of the funerals are now ran by big enterprises larger than the black directors.
However, many African Americans funeral rites are conducted by the small family owned services which are still sophisticated and luxurious. While majority of the African Americans are still attached to the Black funeral tradition, some are already taken to the option of cremations which avoids embalming, burial plot and casket. This option reduces the profit generated by the funeral homes and constitutes one of the problems family-owned businesses encounter.
As these Black funeral homes reduces in number and eventually go into extinction, the history of black funeral traditions disappears with it.
Dr. Carol Williams stated that, the problems encountered by funeral home owners has caused many successors to the funeral home owners to gradually leave the family business which is now among the major problems facing the members of NFDMA. According to Dr. Williams, with no succession plans, any slightest mishap to the owner of a black funeral home leads to the closure of the funeral home business.
Image Credit : The Undertaker’s Parlor, Harry Williams