African American Funeral Customs and History

African American funerals are elaborate events filled with lively processions, passionate prayers, and gospel hymns. Through these special rituals, they strike a unique balance between joy and grief as they celebrate the life of the deceased and their return to heaven. 

African American Funeral Practices in the Present Day 

Traditional African American funerals are known as homegoings. A homegoing is believed to be a spiritual return of the soul to its heavenly roots. 

African American funerals follow Christian traditions. They start with a viewing ceremony which is usually held within a week of death. Family and friends gather to pay their respects to the deceased and spend the last moments with them before the funeral. 

A funeral service is held in a chapel or church in the days following the viewing. Funeral services are often emotional, high energy events that include a spirited eulogy by the pastor and singing gospel hymns. People attending the service are encouraged to give tributes to the deceased. 

Once the funeral service is over, a procession heads to the cemetery to bring the deceased to his or her final resting place. African American processions are intricate and festive occasions, with mournful wails accompanied by cries of joy. They sometimes get proportions of a parade, complete with a brass band playing upbeat music typical of New Orleans jazz funerals. 

Burial ceremonies consist of prayers, animated speeches, and high-spirited a cappella choir performances. All the family members and friends who were present at the viewing are expected to attend both the funeral service and the burial. Once the body of the deceased is partially buried, they can either return to the church or gather at the family’s house for a meal.

African American Funeral Practices Through History

African American funeral practices date back to the arrival of African slaves in America in the 1600s. Slaves were not permitted to gather to conduct their funeral rituals for fear that they would conspire and revolt. Instead, they were buried at night with no ceremony and laid in unmarked graves in non-crop producing grounds. At the same time, slaves were responsible for the preparation of family gatherings following the plantation owner’s death. 

It was only with the introduction of Christianity that slaves were gradually allowed to meet for religious services and funerals. Slave owners were reportedly shocked at the behavior of slaves at these events. They were jubilant and happy as they celebrated the homegoing of their loved ones. 

The Civil War and the end of slavery transformed the nature of African American funerals. African American soldiers and civilians became responsible for removing the dead from the battlefields, digging graves, maintaining cemeteries, and keeping death records. They also assisted military doctors in embalming, done in order to preserve the bodies of killed union soldiers and ship them back home. That is how African Americans gained the necessary knowledge for working within the funeral industry. 

During the Jim Crow period, further segregations helped African American funeral business to thrive. African Americans had to rely on black funeral directors to give the deceased family members respectful burials. In the early 1900s, African American churches began to form Burial Societies that assisted congregations in planning funeral services. Burial Societies collected money from church members to pay for their graves, coffins, and funerals.

Funeral homes, known as funeral parlors, were among the first businesses set up by African Americans after the abolition of slavery. Working at funeral homes attracted African Americans looking for economic opportunities. Black funeral directors became respected community leaders across the segregated United States. Located in converted ground floors of private homes, funeral parlors were true family endeavors with women and children often helping with the business.

African Traditions and African American Funeral Customs 

In spite of great variations in funeral rites across the African continent, most funeral customs have some similar traits, many of which can be found in African American traditions as well.

Similarly to most African societies, African American funerals are not private ceremonies like they are in other American cultures. Rather than being somber events limited to family and closest friends, funerals are very much a public celebration. 

In African American traditions, just like in continental Africa, funerals focus less on the life of the deceased than the eternal victory of God who is bringing them home. God’s glory rather than that of an individual is highlighted in both African funerals and African American homegoings. That is precisely why in African and African American funerals, which are above all celebrations of faith and love, joyful themes often replace the gravity associated with death in western cultures. 

This festive aspect of funerals is also one of the reasons that cremation is generally avoided among Africans and African Americans. It is important to be able to have a physical body of the deceased to bring triumphantly to a cemetery for burial. 

Numerous superstitions can be found in African funeral practices. Many tribes believe that if the funeral rites are done the right way, there are fewer chances that wandering spirits will return and haunt the family of the deceased. 

The same goes for African-American funerals. The funeral service, for example, is not to be conducted in rainy weather, especially if there is any danger of lightning striking on that particular day. What is more, bodies must be buried with feet facing to the east and head to the west. That way, the dead will not have to turn around when Gabriel blows his trumpet in the eastern sunrise. As some historians suggest, this is also the way for African Americans to be buried facing Africa.

Funeral Practices In Various African Countries

Congo

Congolese funerals reflect the social status of the deceased. Families tend to host extravagant events, gathering hundreds of mourners from near and far. Funeral ceremonies are in many cases performed in phases that extend over several months. Similarly to practices in other African countries, Congolese funerals are both sad and cheerful occasions with an overall celebratory atmosphere. 

According to Congolese traditional beliefs, the life force leaves the body after death to become an ancestor spirit. The spirit continues to play an active role in the lives of the relatives by either rewarding or punishing them. Funeral practices, including decorating and ritual washing the body with herbs in preparation for burial, are considered to be crucial steps in the peaceful transition toward the spiritual world.

Angola

Like many other African societies, Angolans believe that life continues after death in a spiritual form. Mourning rituals are essential in helping the spirit of the deceased find peace. If the family does not ensure a proper burial, restless spirits may come back to haunt them. 

Angolan funerals consist of lavish celebrations to honor their loved ones. Funeral rituals often continue for weeks after the burial, ending with a ceremony to celebrate the deceased becoming an ancestor. Angolan burial rites comprise ceremonial preparation and washing of the body, followed by embracing and kissing it by family members.  

Nigeria

Funerals in Nigeria are joyous social events filled with music, singing, and dancing. Nigerians believe that the festive mood increases the chances for the soul to have a successful afterlife. It is common for families to go to great lengths to organize elaborate funerals that often involve animal sacrifices, lavish meals, and dancing pallbearers. 

While Nigerian Muslims traditionally bury their deceased as soon as possible, Christian funeral preparations can last up to several weeks. Certain tribes delay the event for months to be able to save for a proper burial. 

Muslims are buried facing Mecca, whereas, in some Nigerian tribes, men are laid to rest facing east so that they can watch the sunrise and women facing west to see the sunset and prepare dinner for their husbands in the next life. Some families bury their loved ones with weapons to help them win battles on their journey to the afterlife.

Ghana

As in most African countries, funerals in Ghana are regarded as crucial life cycle events. Families spare no expense for funeral ceremonies that last for days and draw thousands of people from all over the country. The number of attendants indicates the status of the deceased. Wealthy families hire professional mourners to cry and wail at the funeral, as well as to increase attendance.

Funeral customs of Ghana’s largest tribe, Ashanti, dictate that all attendants dress formally in black and white except for the immediate family who wears red and black, adorned with gold jewelry. Tribal chiefs wear traditional attire and observe the event from the shade of their exquisite ceremonial umbrellas. 

One of the most peculiar aspects of Ghanaian funeral rites is fantasy caskets, abebuu adekai, meant to represent the profession of the deceased which they will carry on in the afterlife. These ornate caskets can take the form of everything from fish and wild animals to sneakers, ballpoint pens, boats, and airplanes.  

Senegal

Because Senegal is a predominantly Muslim country, funerals are held in accordance with the Islamic tradition. This means that the body must be buried on the same day or the day following the death. Funeral ceremonies are simple and brief. Prayers at a mosque and burials are conducted by men, while female relatives provide incense and white cloth used for washing and covering the body. 

Many Senegalese have also adopted typically African funerary practices including feasting, singing, dancing, and traditional drumming. The attendants at Senegalese funerals are offered bitter kola nuts and candies. This custom symbolizes social connections and can be seen at all important events in Senegal. Mourners may offer the deceased’s family a monetary gift as a way of paying their respects. 

The Gambia

Gambian funerals are social events that gather the entire community of the deceased. Like in Senegal, funerals in the Gambia are based on Muslim practices and rituals. The body is washed, perfumed, and wrapped in a traditional white shroud and buried shortly after death. 

A funeral procession takes the deceased in a wooden casket to the cemetery where mourners pray for the departed soul to rest in peace. Islamic funeral prayer, salat al-janazah, is performed to seek pardon for the deceased. Graves in the Gambia are usually identified by simple markers. Elaborate gravestones are seldom used—Gambians agree that the money should be put to better use in the community.

Somalia

Contrary to many other African societies, Somalis believe that when a person dies, the life cycle is completed and there is no need for elaborate funeral procedures. In accordance with Islamic customs, the body of the deceased is washed, misted with a traditional perfume called adar, and wrapped in white cotton cloth. 

Funeral services are held at a mosque, combining prayers with a traditional Somali goodbye ritual, janaaso. Family members read passages from the Quran to encourage the spirit to leave the body. Somalians bury their dead without a casket. The body is placed in a large rectangular hole in the ground and covered with layers of grass, leaves, and enclosed with a piece of wood.   

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