Segregation in American Cemeteries
The Jim Crow era brought about some of the most pointless divisions in America. Restaurants, buses, schools, churches, and even cemeteries were segregated by race. This left many black people without a place to bury their dead. To solve this problem, black people began starting funeral homes as a way to serve their communities as well as gain a sense of autonomy in a world that was actively hostile towards their very existence.
Some death workers, especially white death workers, have poor understandings of how different hair types and skin tones work. This inability or unwillingness to make black people look like themselves in death reinforces vestiges of the Jim Crow era. Even today, in some old Jim Crow cemeteries, the white side will be neatly manicured while the black sided will be overgrown and poorly maintained. This stark division attests to the resonating effects of segregationist policies. This makes some black people unwilling to go to work with white or non-black death workers.
Black-owned and/or operated funeral homes also have a better understanding of the black funeral, a funeral that isn’t full of stoic mourners dabbing at the corners of their eyes who will try to move on as quickly as possible. This black funeral tradition can easily last multiple days, sometimes weeks, which usually mandates embalming. Called homegoings, these celebrations involve open viewings in luxurious caskets, limousines, gatherings of people who knew the deceased, and large floral arrangements.
The homegoing honors a person’s return to God or an end to suffering. As a striking contrast to how many black people have died, it gave humanity to people who were denied that right in life. The black funeral also pays homage to West African burial traditions in which the first burial was a time of mourning while the second was a time of rejoicing the passage of the soul from the earth. Some mourners even left personal tokens with the deceased before they were laid to rest. By helping others rightfully claim their humanity in death, black-owned and/or operated funeral homes have formed a uniquely black death culture.
From collective traditions to individual personalities, a number of factors affect the way death cultures shape themselves. Having a headstone with a name and an age was sometimes the only way for a black person to be seen as human. This often meant that the burial process reflected the luxury that they could not have in life. Personally, as a Japanese-American, most of my family had far simpler wishes regarding their death. This may have carried over from Buddhist ideas of the impermanence of life or from Japanese cultural values of not calling attention to one’s self and considering the way one’s choices will impact others.