The African-American cemetery in the South derives much of its significance from the rich funerary traditions that have endured for generations within the African-American community. Lingering African influences have mingled with Euro-American customs and a long heritage of Christian faith to produce a strong tradition of culturally significant burial practices.
As in other cultures, African antecedents appear in the deep respect and reverence shown to the dead and in the emphasis placed upon providing the deceased with a proper burial. As blacks encountered the New World, parallels between Christianity and the traditional practices of various African cultures allowed the survival of certain African ideas and symbols. Traditional beliefs, such as the distinction between the body and spirit, and the existence of a separate world for the dead, transferred easily to life in America. Africanisms persisted in such customs as the use of ornamental plantings, reflecting an African belief in the living spirit, and the placement of "offerings" on top of the grave. While such practices remained most prevalent in the coastal areas, where a greater proportion of the black population descended directly from Africa, they are evident to some degree in African-American communities all across the South. The importance and sacredness of the funeral, in particular, are universally recognized among African-Americans.
Other distinctly African-American funeral customs emerged from the crucible of slavery and from the severe economic and social limitations placed upon blacks for many years afterward. The conditions of slavery rendered the funeral an especially significant occasion for African Americans, who savored it as one of the few opportunities given slaves to gather and socialize. Funeral rituals usually lasted all day and far into the night, a tradition that endured until well into the twentieth century. African-American burial traditions, in many ways, were also reflections of the enduring Christian faith that developed in the context of slavery. Funerals emphasized the spiritual rather than the physical aspects of death and presented it as a natural transition from one life into the next. Services took on a hopeful, and sometimes celebratory, tone as attendees rejoiced that a loved one was "goin' home" to be with the Lord. "Homegoing" celebrations allowed family, friends, and community members to pay their last respects to a loved one who had passed on to a better place. Occasionally, they also allowed blacks to receive accolades for accomplishments not safely recognized publicly during life. In the first half of the nineteenth century, for example, the clandestine work of African Americans who served as conductors on the Underground Railroad or provided schooling for blacks was often made public upon their deaths and commemorated in a descriptive epitaph.
African-American mourning practices included a strong tradition of mutual aid and cooperation, especially in rural communities. Although similar traditions existed in rural white communities, such practices often took on greater importance for African Americans, whose family and social ties had been disrupted by slavery. A death often brought an entire community to a virtual halt. Friends and relatives arrived at the home of the deceased with food and condolences to comfort and encourage the grieving family. Wakes and "settin' ups" were common practices in which those gathered spent the night singing, praying, sharing memories, and mourning with the family.
Throughout much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, economic adversity fostered many black burial practices. Since the services of professional grave diggers remained beyond the means of most turn-of-the-century black families, community members often volunteered to perform the task. Simple wooden coffins were common, while the use of grave vaults, a technique frequently used in white cemeteries to maintain an even surface for mowing and walking, remained rare. As a result, many African-American cemeteries, even those without markers, are easily identified by their uneven terrain.
Burial associations, which gained popularity among African-Americans during the late nineteenth century, served as a kind of insurance that helped offset the cost of funerals. For a weekly premium of 25 cents, burial associations agreed to provide a casket, burial garments, and funeral services, thus fulfilling the twofold need of most African Americans to practice frugality while ensuring their loved one could be "put away nicely." Fraternal organizations for men and women also played a significant role for African Americans in both life and death. Blacks belonged to affiliate chapters of traditionally white organizations such as the Masons and the Elks, as well as to local African-American fraternities such as the Circle of Liberia. It was not unusual for such organizations to conduct special burial services for their members, a practice that continues today. Tombstones commemorating membership in a fraternal organization are very common in both historic and more recent African-American cemeteries.
Customs related to death and burial often reflected the resourcefulness and resilience of the black community, as well as the challenges it faced. African-American funeral homes and mortuary businesses, for example, which appeared for the first time in the early decades of the twentieth century, were products of the black self-help movement that emerged during segregation. Along with the church and the school, the funeral home became a center of the black community. The funeral home was one of the first black-owned businesses whose entrepreneurial owners were willing to perform a service that whites were unwilling to offer to blacks. Funeral home directors, generally well-educated and well-respected, were considered leaders in the community. The local population depended on them to provide a myriad of services, from death benefits to investment advice, as well as to contribute generously to community functions and needs.
Since the turn of the century, increasing educational and economic opportunities have gradually transformed black burial rites. As growing numbers of blacks reached middle-class status, black mourning and funeral traditions began to reflect more closely the artistic traditions and symbolism of white funeral customs. Predictably, more elaborate monuments and tombstones indicated the increasing affluence of some members of the African-American community. Anglo-American symbols and motifs, such as the cherub, the dove, or the gates of heaven, began to appear in black cemeteries. Some cemeteries even developed a spatial hierarchy, with the community's most influential members buried in the cemetery's most prominent or desirable location.
With the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, African-American funerary practices became more mainstream. Black mortuary businesses introduced viewing and visitation services. Formal funeral services took on a shorter, less spontaneous format, and funeral homes began to offer printed programs. Contemporary funerary practices also tend to place less emphasis than before on the spiritual aspects of death. Alterations in the outward rituals, however, have not decreased the importance and the sacredness of the burial in African-American life. The funeral home continues to play a central role in the community, providing such important services as insurance, counseling, and investment planning. The activities surrounding death and dying continue to possess cultural significance for African Americans and to serve as a galvanizing force in the black community.