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.
A revelation… Only the most imaginative scholar could use the history of African-American funeral directors to uncover a pivotal part of the struggle for civil rights. That’s precisely what Suzanne Smith has done in this wonderfully original, engaging, and illuminating book.
By getting the dead where they need to go, the living get where they need to be. This deeply human pilgrimage is at the center of Smith’s book on African American funeral directors and their frontline service to the nation’s journeys from slavery and civil war, through Jim Crow and ‘separate but equal’ marketplaces—the sad and violent, heroic and hopeful history of race relations and civil rights.
A lyrical portrait of the African American funeral profession tells us how, for over a century, burying the dead uplifted a people and a profession together amid deep American prejudice that demeaned both. Exploring practices utterly central to African Americans’ living cultural and religious history, Smith has created a history readers will remember long after the book has left their hands.
Smith’s richly detailed history of black funerals illuminates the living world of African American experience. An incredibly important book.
A terrific book. Elegantly written and replete with fascinating details of the African American way of death, To Serve the Living lays bare the role played by black funeral directors in the long struggle for freedom..
- 288 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
From this author
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