African American Funeral Traditions

African-American funeral services stem from a variety of cultural traditions.
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The majority of African-Americans have the same funeral traditions that all other ethnic groups living in America hold. But with any group, there can be two factors that introduce some differences in traditions: religion and cultural background. Some African-American communities, but not all, reach into their past to borrow traditions stemming from a number of cultures. For example, in an article about death, "The African-American Funeral Director," PBS reports that because African-Americans had no opportunity to honor their dead during slavery, they began holding grand, celebratory funerals after the Civil War ended, a tradition that persists today.

1 Homegoings

During slavery, most black people in America viewed death as a blessed pardon from a harsh and brutal life of forced labor. It was commonly agreed that dying meant an African slave's soul would return home to ancestral Africa in a “homegoing.” In the 21st century, many African-American communities still embrace the concept of a homegoing, but instead they believe the departing soul goes to heaven versus the mother country from which their ancestors were brought. Today a homegoing is meant to be a happy occasion because the departed is going home to be at peace and to meet his ancestors who are waiting for him on the other side -- a concept celebrated at funeral services and during wakes.

2 Flower Girls

Flower girls are the female counterpart of the male pallbearer and perform a number of responsibilities that include offering individualized attention to grieving family members. Flower girls are more common in Southern African-American funeral rituals, and being asked to be a flower girl was a huge honor granted to granddaughters, nieces and friends of the family. About 40 years ago, these girls who arranged flowers at the front of the sanctuary and around the coffin were as young as 7, but in the 1970s a shift took place that saw older girls and women take on the role to mark "the passing over Jordan."

3 The Jazz Funeral

One of the most celebrated African-American funeral traditions stems from New Orleans and involves an elaborate funeral procession of jazz music. During slavery, the desire to provide a proper burial for loved ones was strong, but restrictive. As time passed and brass bands became popular in the early18th century, they would serenade the corpse pulled by a horse-drawn cart on the way to the cemetery with ensembles of thoughtful and lively band music that, over time, took on a jazz flavor. The jazz funeral also enveloped concepts rooted in African ideology that became standard practices, such as placing people behind and alongside the horse-drawn casket with loud noisemakers to confuse the spirits and lead them astray from trying to misguide the deceased person's soul.

4 Potlucks

Most African-American families are closely-knit and come together in times of need, including funerals. But just as funerals in some African-American cultures are a time of sorrow, they are also a time for celebrating the deceased person's life with storytelling and congregating together in celebration. Preparing food for mourning families is a time-honored tradition in which each person or household prepares a dish and brings it for all to enjoy. For years funeral potlucks were typically held in the deceased person's home but now most of them take place in church overflow and community rooms and strive to put the "fun" in "funeral."

Jen Saunders is an entrepreneur and veteran journalist who covers a wide range of topics. She made the transition to writing after having spent 12 years in England where she studied and taught English literature.