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To Serve the Living

To Serve the Living

Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death

Suzanne E. Smith

ISBN 9780674036215

Publication date: 02/25/2010

From antebellum slavery to the twenty-first century, African American funeral directors have orchestrated funerals or “homegoing” ceremonies with dignity and pageantry. As entrepreneurs in a largely segregated trade, they were among the few black individuals in any community who were economically independent and not beholden to the local white power structure. Most important, their financial freedom gave them the ability to support the struggle for civil rights and, indeed, to serve the living as well as bury the dead.

During the Jim Crow era, black funeral directors relied on racial segregation to secure their foothold in America’s capitalist marketplace. With the dawning of the civil rights age, these entrepreneurs were drawn into the movement to integrate American society, but were also uncertain how racial integration would affect their business success. From the beginning, this tension between personal gain and community service shaped the history of African American funeral directing.

For African Americans, death was never simply the end of life, and funerals were not just places to mourn. In the “hush harbors” of the slave quarters, African Americans first used funerals to bury their dead and to plan a path to freedom. Similarly, throughout the long—and often violent—struggle for racial equality in the twentieth century, funeral directors aided the cause by honoring the dead while supporting the living. To Serve the Living offers a fascinating history of how African American funeral directors have been integral to the fight for freedom.


  • [Smith] has done a masterful job in her skillful and compelling narrative detailing the critical intersection of the histories of the African American funeral industry and the modern civil rights movement in the United States. Her attention to the contributions of a number of important figures and personalities (e.g., funeral-home owners, funeral directors and embalmers, civil rights leaders, and other historical figures) is unprecedented in its careful and accurate detail. The book documents many of the unsung heroes who were not only caretakers of the dead, but who also made important contributions to civil rights in ways that have never before been so well integrated into a compelling, readable narrative. She is a gifted storyteller and scholar whose mastery of the history’s nuances is praiseworthy. The book is a scholarly and well-researched account of an important slice of the American experience—and our story.

    —Ronald K. Barrett, African American Review


  • Suzanne E. Smith is Professor of History at George Mason University.

Book Details

  • 288 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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