The Disappearance of a Distinctively Black Way to Mourn
As a child, Richard Ables played hide-and-seek with his brother among the caskets. He has spent his entire life in the family business, the Hall Brothers Funeral Home, founded in Washington, D.C., by his uncles in 1938. Along with the funeral parlor down the street, they once buried nearly everyone in LeDroit Park, the historically African American neighborhood in the heart of the nation’s capital.
Now 73, Ables still runs Hall Brothers, though the business isn’t what it once was. Its historic brick row home is aging alongside its proprietor. There’s water damage on the ceiling tiles, and the front parlor’s carpet is matted down to a threadbare pile. The steep stairs out front aren’t accessible for all customers, and the property taxes are high. Ables wants to make improvements, but he says it’s hard to get loans for the space’s upkeep. “I would like for the firm to continue on and on and on,” he says, “but that’s up in the air.”
For more than a century, black funeral directors have been serving black communities in the United States, keeping African American funeral traditions alive. But now those institutions, which withstood segregation and prospered through it, are struggling to survive as market forces change. The largest black trade group in the industry, the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, or NFDMA, does not track the number of black-owned funeral homes in the U.S. But the organization’s director, Carol Williams, says its membership is shrinking—today, the NFDMA represents 1,200 members, compared to a reported 2,000 members in 1997. Many, she says, “cannot afford to keep their doors open.”
Black funeral traditions are distinctive from other burial rituals in American culture. Funeral directors have long preserved the African American tradition of homegoings, as these Christian ceremonies are often called: Bodies are typically viewed in an open casket, and a richly adorned one at that, with large floral arrangements and ornate fabrics. There are limousines and nice cars to escort families, which lends a sense of pride and pageantry to the lengthy rituals.
“To give a peaceful, celebratory homegoing, it’s the whole idea of a celebration of life,” says Karla F.C. Holloway, a professor of English, law, and African American studies at Duke University. It’s become part of black burial traditions, she says—even though “it is a contradiction to the ways in which many black bodies come to die.”
Homegoings can offer black Americans the respect in death that they don’t always receive in life. Black funeral spaces also provide refuge for the living: A family in mourning can be comforted and understood within a community institution, away from an often-racist world. Mourners can feel at home during an otherwise disorienting moment, knowing their traditions will be honored without question. “Culture and practice and ritual are known and remembered in a black funeral home,” Holloway says. “And that matters in a time of grief.”
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