Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Homegoings and Black Funeral Tradition


 ‘Homegoing’ funerals have been showcased in the media recently, with The Learning Channel (TLC) airing a show based in a funeral home in Dallas where elaborate Homegoing funerals were performed and recently a New York filmmaker has filmed a documentary centered around an African-American funeral home in Harlem, NY that caters to their black community with a rich heritage of Homegoing rituals.

What is a Homegoing?

The deceased is most commonly buried, after a very elaborate, religious service.  A Homegoing funeral is often referred to as a “Homegoing  Celebration”. This is a service where friends and family celebrate the decedent "going home" to heaven or glory, to receive their much deserved reward. This service is based on death being a time of rejoicing because the person is going to a far better place. It is most often held in a church, and while burials are conducted in the mornings, “Homegoings” are usually held in the evening.
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How did the heritage of Homegoings evolve?

The heritage of the ‘Homegoing  Funeral Celebration’ has its’ origins in Ancient Egypt.  The ancient African Egyptian people had a rich culture of preparing for a funeral and preserving the deceased for their ‘after-life’.  This is cited as the origin of people of color demonstrating jubilant, religious funeral practices.

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 Homegoings brought to America during slavery.

This rich black heritage was brought to the United States during the era of slavery.  During slavery, black people were not permitted to gather to conduct their funeral rituals for fear that they would conspire to revolt.  Slaves that died were commonly buried without any ceremony in un-marked graves.  However, at the same time slaves would be responsible for the preparation of the deceased plantation owner’s loved ones following a death and preparing the elaborate family gatherings held to mourn the deceased.

The slave populations were very religious and embraced The Bible. The New Testament story of Jesus’ “promise of glory in heaven and riches far greater than those in the mortal world” helped slaves take solace that their day of glory would come when they returned to the Lord. 

Homegoing comes Home.

Eventually the laws changed and black communities were permitted to hold assembly for religious services and funerals.  It was then that funerals and religious activities became the bedrock of early African-American culture and the slaves held jubilant, celebratory funeral ceremonies; named Homegoings.

This was quite confusing to the white Christians who believed that church services including  funerals, should be somber, and reserved events.  What they did not comprehend is that the black slaves saw death as a release and the opportunity to be free at last.  With no hope of ever returning to their dismal world, death was perceived as the glorious release from a life of suffering and the chance to “go home” and live in glory with God, in the kingdom of heaven.

It is this legacy of ‘going home’ to achieve a greater glory, that resonates with African-Americans and their funeral traditions today.  When so many African-Americans still feel repressed and live in less than adequate circumstances, it is quite understandable to see how the heritage of Homegoing still resonates with them. 

Black Funeral Homes – a long history of service and pride

In their subservient roles in early American culture, many within the black community held positions of responsibility for caring for the dead, and thus a much honored tradition was borne.  During the Civil War, Black soldiers removed the dead from the battlefields, kept death records, and were some of the first involved in learning embalming skills.  Many people of color assisted military doctors; learning anatomy and embalming skills that positioned them well for service within the funeral industry. 

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At the turn of the 19th Century, Black churches began to form Burial Societies to assist their congregation in preplanning funeral services, and funeral homes were among the first businesses set up by African-Americans after the abolition of slavery. 

The heritage of the black mortuary has a long tradition of being a family business passed from one generation to the next.  In the communities they serve, the funeral director is highly regarded for his dedicated and compassionate service to his community. Homegoing funerals can be extensive family affairs, with the funeral director taking exceptional pride in delivering a Homegoing service to families, paying tribute to their loved one and bringing them comfort as they deliver their final goodbyes. 

Today’s Homegoings.
In today’s Homegoings, funeral homes often use "White Glove" Professional Pallbearers to add yet another 'mark of distinction' to the services offered to their families. The John B. Houston Funeral Home  in the Tri- State area offers professional pallbearers consisting of eight men who shoulder your loved one's casket during the processional and recessional (in and out of the church) and at the cemetery.
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Today Black funeral homes in America and throughout the Caribbean still maintain this rich heritage of funeral service. The trade association that represents this group is the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association (NFD&MA)which is the world's largest and oldest association of African American funeral directors, morticians and embalmers.

William C. Harris aka"The Funeral Home" NFD&MA  reception at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans, La.


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