Cover: To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death, from Harvard University PressCover: To Serve the Living in HARDCOVER

To Serve the Living

Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death

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Product Details


$41.00 • £32.95 • €37.00

ISBN 9780674036215

Publication Date: 02/25/2010


288 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

12 halftones

Belknap Press


[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

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.—Kevin Boyle, author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age

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.—Jon Butler, Yale University

Smith’s richly detailed history of black funerals illuminates the living world of African American experience. An incredibly important book.—Gary Laderman, author of Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

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.—Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade

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.—Shane White, co-author of Playing the Numbers: Gambling in Harlem Between the Wars

Awards & Accolades

  • Finalist, 2011 Literary Award for Nonfiction, Library of Virginia
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