The Black American funeral tradition of homegoing
What to know about African American homegoing funeral services
A homegoing is a funeral tradition in the U.S. Black community that celebrates a loved one’s release from this life and a reunion with God.
Funeral rituals are among the oldest traditions in African American culture, since enslaved people were typically able to mourn as they chose, unlike most other areas of their life.
Homegoings share elements of other Christian services, with some unique elements—like the procession from the family home to the church, and the inclusion of joy as well as sorrow at the funeral service.
Another key element of homegoings is the emphasis on community, with distant relatives and acquaintances traveling for the event in order to help the bereaved family heal.
A homegoing is a type of Christian funeral that is traditional in the Black community in America, celebrating a person’s return to their heavenly home. Whether you are a member of this community or attending a friend’s homegoing, understanding the background and customs of homegoings will help you better honor both your loved one and their heritage.
Historically, the burials and funerals of enslaved people in the U.S. were usually not performed or controlled by the landowners, but by their family and peers. This provided them with the rare opportunity to establish their own rituals, making funerals part of the bedrock of African American culture. Today, many Black funerals are celebrated as a final liberation and as a time for the community to come together.
Many Black people consider death as a release from a life of suffering and an opportunity for the soul to return to eternal glory with God or in heaven. As such, while the loss of a loved one is painful, their passing is often seen as a joyful occasion. This is marked by an exuberant celebration of life and God’s glory.
Another key element of homegoings is the importance of family and community coming together for support, which is seen as important in the bereaved’s healing process. Full attendance is strongly encouraged, and family, friends, and even distant acquaintances travel from near and far to participate in the celebration.
Homegoings share a lot in common with other Christian services and funerals, but they have various unique elements. They typically begin with a wake or visitation, where family and friends gather, pay their respects to the deceased, and offer condolences to the family before the funeral service.
Then a funeral procession usually takes place from the family home to the church. Family members commonly arrive at the funeral in limousines or upscale vehicles, adding a sense of dignity and pride to the occasion.
The funeral, usually set in a church, is an elaborate service, with music playing a significant role. Guests join in with gospel songs and hymns, singing, clapping, and raising their hands in worship. An open casket is common, showcasing the deceased in fine attire and decorated with flower arrangements and luxurious fabrics. Some Black funerals may follow a dress code, where the family requests guests to wear a specific color that is also reflected in the decor.
The funeral service is led by a pastor and includes eulogies from family, friends, acquaintances, and the pastor honoring the deceased and the life they led. The service is charged with a wide range of emotions, from sorrow and joy, with crying and dancing. The uninhibited expression of emotions is viewed as a healing and liberating experience. At the end of the funeral and after a viewing, the casket is ceremoniously closed.
Following the funeral comes another joyous procession from the church to the cemetery, where family and friends lead their loved one to their final resting place with music and celebration. The burial, in contrast, is a more somber event, featuring additional eulogies and songs. Although cremation is becoming more popular nowadays, the significance of burial in African American culture has prevented its widespread adoption.
After the burial, family and friends often reconvene at their loved one’s home or the funeral home for a joyful repast. This festive meal, the last event in a chain of remembrance ceremonies, symbolizes a return to normal life, celebrated collectively by all those who shared a love for the deceased.
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