April 30, 2019 Beyond The Dash

Going Home: African-American Funerals and the Tradition of Celebration

Saying goodbye with song, prayer and communal grief

Going Home: African-American Funerals and the Tradition of Celebration
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 31: Stevie Wonder performs at the funeral for Aretha Franklin at the Greater Grace Temple on August 31, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. Franklin, 76, died at her home in Detroit on August 16. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 83% of African-Americans identify as Christian, with 45% specifically identifying as Baptist. Because the funeral traditions in this community are strongly rooted in religion, the homegoing ceremony is one of the most popular types of funeral services in the United States.


What is a homegoing ceremony?


A homegoing service is very similar to a traditional Christian funeral. However, a homegoing is more than just a funeral—it's also a celebration of African-American culture, music, love and strength in the face of loss. It's based on the idea that death should be rejoiced, as it is the time for the deceased to return to God in heaven. 


Functionally, the homegoing service will have many of the same elements as a Christian funeral, including a musical prelude, prayers, songs, readings from Scripture, obituary reading, eulogy, and often a viewing of the deceased person. Homegoings often feature music by a church choir that sings gospel hymns, and often includes space for family and friends to address the congregation with brief remarks.


History of the homegoing ceremony


Sadly, the history behind homegoing ceremonies dates all the way back to the days of slavery. Slaves that were abducted from Africa believed that their souls would return to their homeland after death. White slave owners did not allow their slaves to congregate unsupervised, fearing uprising—even to conduct funerals and mourn their dead. Christian values were instilled to subdue the slaves and encourage compliance with forced labor. Despite the sinister reasoning for teaching Christianity to slaves, Old Testament stories promised freedom from slavery and therefore resonated with them. Religious events like funerals became the only permissible way for slaves to congregate together. The idea that death marks the end of pain and suffering, and returns the soul to heaven, is a belief that has persevered to the present day.


After enduring so much pain, it's easy to see why the emphasis is on celebration, rather than sorrow. Though this tradition stems from a terrible point in history, the homegoing ceremony is a reminder of resilience in the face of grief and adversity. 


What sets a homegoing service apart from other memorials?


Modern homegoing services involve the whole community, and usually take place in a Christian church. Even those who were not devoutly Christian in life may have a homegoing service that involves biblical prayer, gospel music and an emphasis on ascension to heaven.


Something that sets homegoing services apart from other kinds of funeral is that a homegoing can last as long as needed by mourners. Friends and relatives are often encouraged to speak to the congregation about the life of the deceased person, and this opportunity for many to say their piece. Stories, tributes, prayers and words of comfort are offered for all in attendance, and these often extend the service well beyond the timeframe of a traditional funeral.


In fact, some homegoings can last hours, like Aretha Franklin's televised celebration of life in August of 2018. During the epic eight-hour service, there were musical numbers by Ariana Grande, Stevie Wonder, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and others.  


Another difference between a homegoing and a Christian funeral is that a homegoing service may include community calls-to-action, political messages or perspectives on racial inequality, particularly where the death was the result of violence. Depending on the family, the cause of death might not be mentioned in the service, but guests can expect to hear a sermon that relates the death to a bigger picture.


Mourners will also typically wear their 'Sunday best' at a homegoing service. Funeral fashion at a homegoing service often involves more formal church wear, complete with boutonnieres, veils, and extravagant hats. Though many will wear full black mourning attire, bright colors are often worn at homegoing ceremonies as well. 


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Celebrating life in song


Music, community emotion, storytelling and prayer make a homegoing a memorable way to remember those who have passed. These ceremonies embody African-American culture, and help everyone to say goodbye before laying a loved one to rest. Celebrating life reminds mourners that though each day is precious, no one is ever guaranteed the next. 

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