How to Attend a Black Funeral
Jodi M. Savage
A Black funeral is not called a funeral. Rather, it is a homegoing or homegoing service. A homegoing is a celebration of a person’s life, a mourning for what has been lost, and a going away party all wrapped in one. At a homegoing, folks celebrate your loved one going home to be with the Lord, where they will walk streets paved with solid gold and claim the many mansions their heavenly Father or Momma or Grandma has stored up for them.
When we learn of a death, we often ask, “Who got the body?” or “Who did the body?”—both of which mean “Which funeral home has the deceased person’s body?” Though such a question may seem trivial or intrusive, the name of the funeral home that will prepare the deceased for their homegoing communicates important information. Many funeral homes have their signature strengths. Some give the deceased great French manicures. Others give their clients life-like smiles. Or the funeral director always quotes John Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” during the service. Some funeral homes do great makeup on Black people, or impressive reconstructive work so families can have the open-casket homegoing of their dreams. And then there are those funeral homes that specialize in the most tricked out, deluxe homegoings: caskets shaped like cars; the deceased standing up with shades on; horse-drawn carriages carrying the caskets and doves being released into the air. Knowing the name of the funeral home helps set the attendees’ expectations. We like to know what we’re walking into. “Who got the body?” is the homegoing equivalent of “Who all gon’ be there?”
Homegoings are a multi-hour production. The Order of Service contains many parts: the pre-service viewing of the body; prayer; A and B choir selections (with a bonus song) and solos; scripture readings; remarks by the attendees; the reading of the obituary, cards, and acknowledgments; the eulogy; the altar call; another viewing with the choir singing in the background; and the repast. While most homegoings are not all-day affairs like Aretha Franklin’s televised one, you should still eat before you come and bring a snack, like some peppermints and Violet Mints wrapped inside tissue just like your grandma used to do.
Black folks love to collect funeral programs. The funeral program is a family heirloom and archaeological artifact. It tells many stories, including those no one dares utter aloud. The obituary—its centerpiece—lists relatives and helps us map out family trees. We look at who is listed as a loved one left behind, who has been excluded, and rely upon gossip and family lore to fill in the blanks. The obituary tells the story of The Great Migration, rattling off names of the small Southern towns and ghosts from which our ancestors fled; and the destinations, opportunities, and troubles they found elsewhere. We see the name of the deceased person’s church listed and realize our family has attended that church since our great-great-grandparents were children. The funeral program’s importance is why people who aren’t going to the homegoing will yell out, “Bring me a program!” as if you’re headed to a concert or Broadway play. Therefore, it must be a work of art, complete with lots of pictures, poems, and an obituary that includes enough details to serve as required reading in an African-American history class. For generations to come, the funeral program will live on in drawers and china cabinets and media storage units and on mirrors across this land. Decades from now, someone will look at it and wonder, Who was this person? How are they related to me? Why do we still have this? And folks will be tasked with planning their own loved one’s homegoing in the future. They too will ask questions. What songs should we sing? What scriptures did they read at Ma’Dear’s homegoing? What were Pop-Pop’s parents’ names? They will look to their collection of funeral programs as a roadmap and historical source. So be a Good Samaritan and grab an extra program or two. But don’t get mad if the usher sucks her teeth and looks at you sideways. Funeral programs ain’t cheap.
The deceased must be casket sharp. But “casket sharp” is in the eye of the deceased—not the living beholder. The homegoing’s purpose is to honor the life of the deceased, not to subject them to your fashion fantasies and fetishes. Dress your loved one as they dressed in life, not as you have always wished they would look. If she always wore cornrows and baggy jeans while living, do not dress her in a frilly pink suit with a press and curl. If he never owned a suit or hard-soled shoes, do not show up to the funeral home with an outfit from a Stacy Adams store. If you do, we will gossip about your poor choices after the homegoing and repast. They know good and well she ain’t never dressed that way when she was alive. Now why they do him like that? What happened to her hair? If the deceased always showed up to church looking like she was auditioning for a spot on “The Real Housewives of the Fire and Brimstone Church of God in Christ on the Hill,” then you know her final outfit must consist of a fancy hat and a suit with rhinestones and lots of sparkly, glittery beads. If the brotha was on the deacon board, let him go on to glory, wearing his three-piece suit. Allow the deceased to show out in death as they showed out in life. Whatever their thing was, honor it.
Every homegoing needs an officiant. The officiant is both emcee and hype man. Anyone can serve in this role: a minister or church member, a family member, or that person who seems to always speak at everyone’s homegoing as if they’re a professional homegoing spokesperson. The officiant must strike the right balance between being solemn, compassionate, and celebratory. They must be charismatic and lively, like an award show host or a DJ at the club. Though it would be helpful if the officiant were well-versed in the panoply of names whose spellings do not match their pronunciations, or at least familiar enough with the deceased person’s family to improvise, this skill is not necessary. If they can keep the crowd jumpin’ and praisin’ the Lord, no one will care that they butchered every name in the obituary. Equally as important as persona is time management skills. The officiant must be firm, aggressive even, in moving attendees along who do not adhere to the three-minute time limit for giving remarks. This may require standing up and saying God bless ya, brotha or We thank God for ya, sista with an air of finality in their voice. In such instances, the organist should stop playing because nothing gets Black church folks going like good shoutin’ music or a call-and-response duet with the organ. If the speaker doesn’t take the hint, the officiant must be willing to make an announcement reminding everyone to stay within the time limits. Otherwise, the cemetery will be closed and the food at the repast will be cold by the time we finish listening to everyone’s trial sermon. Lastly, the officiant must realize that even the most meticulously planned Order of Service can go awry. They must be able to handle conflict and melodrama as they arise. The officiant must know when to intervene and when to just roll with it. The person who gets up and tells all the attendees how much they hated their dead momma? Everybody grieves differently. Just let the Lord use them. They might encourage someone to be a better person, so their own loved ones won’t put them on blast when they’re dead and gone. That one person who sounds like a battered crow, but insists on singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”? As the first line of the song goes, why should they feel discouraged? After all, the Bible commands, “Let everything that hath breath praise ye the Lord.” Just rolling with it may mean patting someone on the back as they sob or speak their truth. Or it could entail standing by silently as everything implodes, with a pensive expression on their face and a WTF! in their heart.
Black folks talk a lot at homegoings. We never adhere to the rule to keep remarks to three minutes. In this time, you will learn everything you never knew to ask: how you’re related to someone; how your godmother or play-aunt met your family; the fact that almost every elderly Black woman you know has worked as a domestic for white folks at some point in her life; the existence of the deceased person’s other children and spouses no one knew about. The list of revelations goes on. Just sit back and wave your handkerchief or fan yourself with your program. Let the grieving oversharers pay homage and mourn in their own way.
The song selections at a homegoing will cause even the most stoic person’s heart to flutter and eyes to twitch. There is a canon of gospel songs most Black folks know, or can at least mumble along to, even if we haven’t been to church since Jesus was a baby. These songs are second nature to us, like knowing the 23rd Psalms or the “Our Father” prayer. There will always be a soloist on hand whose voice is so beautiful, they leave you in a catatonic state as rivers of salt water stream down your face, but you don’t need to have such an effect on others to sing at a homegoing. All that matters is that you dig deep down into the bowels of your soul and belt out all your sorrows and those of your ancestors, too. The soloist, choir, and congregation will sing at least a few of these songs: Amazing Grace; His Eye is on the Sparrow; I’ll Fly Away; Going Up the Yonder; Soon and Very Soon; When We All Get to Heaven; I Won’t Complain; When I See Jesus; Walkin’ Up the King’s Highway; and Great Gettin’ Up Morning.
The altar call at a homegoing is one of the most effective ways to guilt-trip folks into coming to Jesus. First, the preacher baits you with a good Bible verse, like Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Then they hook you by contrasting the deceased person’s good virtues with your own moral bankruptcy. “When she pulls up to the pearly gates of heaven, the Lord will say, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.’ What will the Lord say to you? Will He even know who you are? Is your name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life?” Or the preacher will say, “His crown has already been bought and paid for. What about yours? Is it still on lay-a-way?” Finally, the preacher snatches your heart right out of your chest with one last question: “Don’t you wanna see your loved one again?” Of course, you do. Before you know it, you’ve glided to the front of the church, snot and tears staining your face, where you pray, repeat after the preacher (Father, forgive me for all my sins), and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and personal savior.
The repast is an opportunity for attendees to reminisce about the deceased, catch up with folks they haven’t seen in years, and comfort the family—all over some good food after the homegoing. It can take place in the church’s fellowship hall or dining room, the funeral home, or at someone’s house. But you can’t eat everybody’s cooking, otherwise we’d all end up in the hospital or six feet under. Some folks should only be assigned to fix plates on the food line or hand out ice and drinks. So only bring food to the repast if you’re asked to. Otherwise, just sit down and eat yo’ mac and cheese and collard greens. The family thanks you in advance for your kind consideration.
Black folks love pomp and circumstance. We take special care with even the smallest details of a homegoing. Her hands crossed atop a Bible the same color as her outfit. Flowers whose colors match the accent colors on the casket. A nameplate against the casket’s lid whose design is the same as that of the prayer cards. Someone to sing their favorite songs. Special instructions to the minister giving the eulogy. He was from the Holiness church and liked that loud preaching, so make sure you holla a bit. Perfectly curated services, seating arrangements, family processions, and drives through the old neighborhood on the way to the cemetery. A homegoing is the last loving act we’ll be able to perform for our dearly departed; the last party we’ll be able to throw in their honor. Make it a wonderful send off. A going home celebration to remember. This is how we mourn our dead.
Jodi M. Savage is a writer and attorney in New York City. Her essays have appeared in Catapult, Kweli Journal, WSQ (formerly Women’s Studies Quarterly), and other places. Two of Jodi’s essays were nominated for a Pushcart Prize and one was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2019. She’s been awarded fellowships from the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and the Storyknife Writers Retreat. Jodi is also a contributing editor for Kweli Journal and co-host of the podcast “The Work Rundown.” She can be found online at jodimsavage.com and @jodimsavage on Twitter and Instagram.