African American: Free at Last!

As the organist plays the prelude, friends and relatives enter quietly and take their seats in the pews. The coffin rests in the front of the church. The minister and family wait in the rear.

The music shifts from the prelude into a quiet processional, signaling the minister to lead the family into the sanctuary. As they make their way down the center aisle, the minister reads three Scripture passages loudly and forcefully, as if banishing the fear and power of death from the room:

I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. (John 11:25-26, KJV)

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. (fob 19:25-27, KJV)

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The LORD gave and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. (1 Tim. 6:7; Job 1:21, KJV)

When the family is seated and the minister has taken his place at the podium, the choir echoes the hope of the Scripture in an opening hymn. The remainder of the African-American funeral service—the eulogies and tributes as well as the prayers, songs, and meditations—rests on this solid base and focuses on the freedom that the deceased loved one has now found in Christ.

A Door to Freedom

This focus on freedom and hope is typical of most African-American funerals—whether for a professing Christian or not. It's an approach and an attitude that has roots in the oppression and slavery of our ancestors who viewed death as the gateway to ultimate freedom.

From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, 8 to 15 million Africans were brought to this country as slaves. Approximately 6 million arrived in the Americas during the eighteenth century alone. These men, women, and children, torn away from family and friends, were also forbidden to speak their own language or observe their traditional customs. Thus they were stripped of their heritage and culture and forced to conform to a multitude of other cultures, depending on the background of the plantation masters who owned them. Each time they were sold to a new master, they were expected to learn new traditions and live by them.

Given these deprivations and the varied ethnic backgrounds of the colonial plantation owners, it is nothing short of a miracle that the African-American culture has any cohesive-ness at all. The thread that seems to hold it together, especially in the face of death, is a longing for freedom and the assurance that the life to come must be better than this one.

The Role of the Family

As in many cultures, African-American funeral customs and traditions depend upon the geographical, social, and economic status of the deceased. However, some basic traditions hold true for nearly all African Americans.

Upon the death of a loved one, it becomes the immediate family's responsibility to make the necessary funeral arrangements. These arrangements are usually entrusted to the family's preferred funeral director and spiritual advisor.

The extended family also has an important role—to serve as caregivers for the immediate family. Since in African-American culture it is customary for first-, second-, third-, and even fourth-generation relatives to maintain a close bond of friendship, many people can become involved in this care-giving. They do so by providing meals, receiving guests, running errands, praying, comforting, providing financial help, and so on.

The funeral services themselves are fairly standard. The wake is the time allowed by the family for other relatives and friends to express their condolences and emotions regarding the deceased. In earlier times (and still today in some parts of the American South) the wake was held in the deceased family's home for one or two days before the funeral service. Today it usually takes place for several hours the night before the funeral service. Family and friends come together at the funeral home to show support for each other, to grieve their loss openly, and to reminisce about the life of the deceased. There is usually a brief ceremony at the beginning of the wake—a musical selection, the viewing of the deceased, prayer, and Scripture reading. It is also appropriate during the wake for the deceased to receive final rites from any social, religious, or fraternal organization that they might have belonged to. This service can range in temperament or emotions from the very subdued to the very high-spirited, depending on the lifestyle and religious beliefs of the deceased and/or surviving family members.

The Christian funeral service is usually held in the church during the late morning or early afternoon. Generally the service includes the processional and viewing, music, prayer, Scripture reading, remarks or meditation, acknowledgment of cards and other expressions of sympathy, reading of an obituary, and a eulogy. It is during this service that final tributes are made to the deceased and expressions of love and words of comfort are extended to the bereaved family.

The interment service concludes the funeral rites.

Spirituals Tell the Story

The words of two popular hymns often sung during the traditional African-American funeral sum up the essence of how death is viewed in this culture. The first, "May the Work I've Done Speak for Me," focuses on the person. Whatever we accomplish in life, be it good or bad, we must answer for in judgment:

"When I'm resting in my grave,
there is nothing that can be said,
May the work I've done speak for me."

The second, "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," admits that we are fallible and need the guidance and protection of Jesus—that we cannot, without faith, survive life here on earth or have a chance for life after death. This song was written by Thomas A. Dorsey after his first wife and baby boy died in childbirth.

Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, help me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light;
take my hand, precious Lord,
lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
precious Lord, linger near;
when my life is almost gone,
hear my cry, hear my call,
hold me fast lest I fall;
take my hand, precious Lord,
lead me home.

When the darkness appears
and the night draws near,
When the day is past and gone,
at the river I stand,
guide my feet, hold my hand;
take my hand, precious Lord,
lead me home.

Words and Music by Thomas A. Dorsey Copyright © 1938 by Hill & Range Songs, Inc. Copyright renewed, assigned to Unichappell Music, Inc. (Rightsong Music, Publisher) International copyright secured. All rights reserved.

Hester Woods is a member of Hilliard Chapel AME Zion Church, an employee of Brown's Funeral Home, LTD, and president-elect of the Board of Hospice of Western Michigan.