Although many variations exist in African American funeral traditions, most variations share some attributes. Because of the history of African Americans in the United States, many of these variations represent an amalgamation of cultures. For many African Americans, funerals are not only a time to say goodbye and send the deceased safely off on a spiritual journey, but it also provides an opportunity to bind the family closer.
After a person dies, it takes five to seven days before the funeral. However, since it is important to have the immediate family present, this time can be extended if any conflict exists with the proposed date. The day before the funeral, a wake or viewing of the body is held. In earlier times, the wake would take place in the family’s home, however, most wakes are now held at the funeral parlor. The wake represents a time for family and friends to gather and say goodbye to the deceased. It is also a time to pay respect to the family. Food can be served at the home or church after a wake.
Before the family enters the church, friends and other attendees at the funeral get a last chance to view the body. The immediate family and other relatives walk down the aisle toward the casket. Designated seating on the left side of the church is usually designated for the family. The funeral begins with the reading of the Bible followed by an opening song by the choir or a family member. The obituary is read prior to the eulogy, which is generally performed by a pastor.
In addition to the pallbearers who carry the casket, African American funerals have flower girls who are responsible for carrying the flowers placed on or around the casket. Flowers girls are usually the nieces, cousins or close friends of the deceased. They usually sit together in the first few rows opposite the family. At the end of the eulogy and after the last prayer, they are signaled to come retrieve the flowers, which are placed by the grave or loaded into the hearse.
The funeral procession, also called the last ride among some southern African Americans, is the idea of spiritually “going home” for the deceased. The immediate family rides directly behind the hearse to the cemetery, followed by the other funeral attendees. The funeral procession rides with the headlights or emergency blinkers on and some African Americans place purple flags on the antenna. An important tradition that occurs at the cemetery site is ensuring that the body is buried with the feet facing east so the spirit can rise on Judgment Day.
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