As a child, Richard Ables played hide-and-seek with his brother among the caskets. He has spent his entire life in the family business, the Hall Brothers Funeral Home, founded in Washington, D.C., by his uncles in 1938. Along with the funeral parlor down the street, they once buried nearly everyone in LeDroit Park, the historically African American neighborhood in the heart of the nation’s capital.
Now 73, Ables still runs Hall Brothers, though the business isn’t what it once was. Its historic brick row home is aging alongside its proprietor. There’s water damage on the ceiling tiles, and the front parlor’s carpet is matted down to a threadbare pile. The steep stairs out front aren’t accessible for all customers, and the property taxes are high. Ables wants to make improvements, but he says it’s hard to get loans for the space’s upkeep. “I would like for the firm to continue on and on and on,” he says, “but that’s up in the air.”
For more than a century, black funeral directors have been serving black communities in the United States, keeping African American funeral traditions alive. But now those institutions, which withstood segregation and prospered through it, are struggling to survive as market forces change. The largest black trade group in the industry, the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, or NFDMA, does not track the number of black-owned funeral homes in the U.S. But the organization’s director, Carol Williams, says its membership is shrinking—today, the NFDMA represents 1,200 members, compared to a reported 2,000 members in 1997. Many, she says, “cannot afford to keep their doors open.”
Black funeral traditions are distinctive from other burial rituals in American culture. Funeral directors have long preserved the African American tradition of homegoings, as these Christian ceremonies are often called: Bodies are typically viewed in an open casket, and a richly adorned one at that, with large floral arrangements and ornate fabrics. There are limousines and nice cars to escort families, which lends a sense of pride and pageantry to the lengthy rituals.
“To give a peaceful, celebratory homegoing, it’s the whole idea of a celebration of life,” says Karla F.C. Holloway, a professor of English, law, and African American studies at Duke University. It’s become part of black burial traditions, she says—even though “it is a contradiction to the ways in which many black bodies come to die.”
Homegoings can offer black Americans the respect in death that they don’t always receive in life. Black funeral spaces also provide refuge for the living: A family in mourning can be comforted and understood within a community institution, away from an often-racist world. Mourners can feel at home during an otherwise disorienting moment, knowing their traditions will be honored without question. “Culture and practice and ritual are known and remembered in a black funeral home,” Holloway says. “And that matters in a time of grief.”
Untimely death and dying marked the African American experience at its beginning—from mortality-plagued transatlantic voyages to the violence of forced labor and the privation of the slave quarters. Surrounded by these unnecessary deaths, funeral ceremonies were an urgent and central rite in slave communities. They also formed the foundation of the black church tradition.
From their earliest incarnations, black funerals were political, subversive—a talking back to the powers that be. Particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, if slaves were allowed to bury their own dead and craft their own rituals, away from the overseeing eyes of whites, they could plan for their freedom, spiritually and physically.
In Richmond, Virginia, in 1800, a slave named Gabriel plotted an insurrection at an enslaved child’s funeral, according to Suzanne E. Smith, the author of To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death. “Slave masters then cracked down, and they created a lot more rules about slave funerals,” says Smith, a professor at George Mason University. “They often insisted masters had to be present.”
Three decades later, Nat Turner led a slave revolt in Virginia. “It was never shown that Nat Turner had organized anything at a funeral, but there were rumors he had,” Smith says. In response, Virginia passed new legal restrictions on slave activities, including funerals. The fear of rebellions prompted similar laws curtailing unsupervised slave gatherings across the South.
The end of slavery, and the war that brought it about, transformed American funerals across races. It was the massive death toll of the Civil War—the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history—that brought the modern American funeral industry into being. With so many soldiers dying on battlefields far from home, families scrambled to ship bodies home. Until the war, embalming was practiced primarily by doctors and scientists. During the war, undertakers set up shop near battlefields, selling their wares and ensuring embalmed bodies could make the long journey home without decomposing. As for the many soldiers whose bodies remained where they’d fallen, black soldiers were often assigned the lowly task of burying the war’s dead.
Undertakers had once been tradesmen who simply made coffins and buried bodies. After the Civil War, the craft professionalized. More Americans were dying in hospitals, not in homes, and families gladly handed off the job of caring for bodies at life’s end. Owning a funeral home became a profitable business, and one that attracted African Americans looking for economic opportunities. In 1912, the funeral industry’s major trade association began excluding blacks from membership, officially segregating the industry. Black funeral directors worked to serve and retain black customers, who relied on them to give their loved ones respectful burials, as Jim Crow deepened racial divisions.
The funeral industry created a class of African American millionaires, as Smith notes in her book. In 1953, Ebony magazine headlined an article, “Death is Big Business,” declaring that “Negro undertakers gross more than $120 million for 150,000 [black] funerals each year.” The next year the publication ran an essay by a prominent black undertaker called, “How I Made a Million.” With growing clout, funeral directors often went into politics, and served as mayors, pastors, and community leaders.
Funeral directors also played a key role in the civil-rights movement. Not only did they care for those who died in lynchings, protests, and other conflicts, but they also staged large-scale funerals—for Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, and others—that galvanized Americans to the civil-rights cause. They provided bail money when activists were jailed, and offered their premises for meetings. Hearses and funeral-home cars became a way to ferry civil-rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., around the South inconspicuously. On the night that King was assassinated, a funeral-home worker, acting as his chauffeur, was one of the last people to see him alive.
But those in the industry, both black and white, also faced scrutiny for their perceived profiteering. In 1963, the British writer Jessica Mitford published a muckraking volume The American Way of Death, which sharply criticized the excesses of the then-$1.6 billion dollar funeral business. Writing in what was then The Atlantic Monthly, Mitford’s article “The Undertaker’s Racket” called out swindling funeral directors for their unscrupulous sales methods. In shock at the money being taken from the living, ostensibly on behalf of the dead, she wrote, “The cost of a funeral is the third largest expenditure, after a house and a car, in the life an ordinary American family.” The average funeral in 1963, according to Mitford, cost $1,450 (about $11,000 in today’s dollars).
Mitford’s findings prompted an examination of the industry. But black funeral directors reacted somewhat dismissively to the book, according to Smith. She paraphrases their thinking like this: “Nobody is going to tell us we can’t have an elaborate funeral. We are the ones came when the lynching happened and we picked up the bodies off the ground. We have an elaborate funeral because that’s our tradition and that’s our way of honoring people.”
Today, the overall industry is thriving—it takes in about $16 billion per year, according to the latest data from the National Funeral Directors Association (which is different from, and much larger than, the NFDMA). But the model has changed: Chains and corporations have swallowed up much of the business. Since the 1990s, the largest chain—Service Corporation International, along with its Dignity Memorial products—has bought up competitors and small businesses to amass more than 1,500 funeral homes and more than 20,000 employees across North America, with $3 billion in revenues. The Houston-based SCI is often dubbed the Walmart of death-care, but it rarely passes along its cost-savings to consumers, instead charging more than many small companies, according to reporting from Bloomberg Businessweek. American funerals run an average of $7,000, but top-of-the-line caskets can cost more than $10,000.
Many African American homegoings, though, are still handled by small, family-owned businesses, and these continue to be elaborate, sometimes expensive affairs. Although African Americans are typically much more averse to cremation than other Americans, a growing number of people are choosing this option, which avoids the cost of a casket, burial plot, and embalming. Cost-effective cremations cut into the profits for funeral homes—one of many challenges family-owned firms are facing.
Large chains can more easily absorb profit losses because of their size—and because they have capitalized on the cremation industry. SCI, for instance, bought up the largest cremation organization and dozens of crematories. The dominance of chains portends the struggles of many small businesses, which contracted during the recession in 2008. Those issues are compounded for black-owned companies, which are less likely to get loans and comprise only about 7 percent of U.S. small businesses. Black owners often start out with less capital, as the wealth gap between black Americans and white Americans continues to widen. Without money for upkeep, the owners of small funeral homes are finding themselves losing customers to nicer, newer facilities, which are increasingly run by chains.
Richard Ables’s storefront in D.C. is facing these economic issues: Hall Brothers Funeral Home is in a neighborhood whose demographics have shifted. It’s now across from a renovated theater and a row of new restaurants. Ables’s closest competitor, Frazier’s Funeral Home, was shut down in 2008 and its building was converted to luxury apartments. Much of his black clientele has decamped to Maryland or other more affordable places, and his area is now full of new, white residents. In his experience, few whites cross the so-called color line to ask for his services. “Maybe it’s time to move from here to somewhere else,” he says, adding that he will soon need a less expensive location.
His story is not unusual. Where once many black funeral homes catered to black clients across the economic spectrum, some are now located in areas that are increasingly segregated by wealth and race. Low-income residents can’t afford many of their services, and as neighborhoods gentrify and see an influx of white residents, these businesses are left with even fewer patrons. In an effort to broaden their customer base, some black funeral directors are trying to market to white clientele or incoming immigrant families.
The challenges of the industry may explain why the heirs of funeral home owners are increasingly moving away from the family business. Carol Williams of NFDMA, the black funeral-home trade association, says succession planning is one of the biggest issues facing her members. Historic black funeral homes have typically been passed from generation to generation, but eager successors are hard to find as the lucrative work dries up. “When [owners] don’t have a succession plan, and something happens when they can no longer operate it themselves, they end up closing,” Williams says.
As Smith, the professor at George Mason, says, “When these funeral homes disappear, you lose all that history. It’s just gone.” But their decline is also a cultural loss for the present moment. Black Americans are still eight times more likely than white Americans to die by homicide. They are more likely to die at younger ages. Last year, young black men were five times more likely to be killed by police than white men of the same age. Directors of historic, black funeral homes know this better than anyone: They’ve tended to these bodies, and those of their loved ones. They understand that even if the moment of death is tragic or violent, care for the dead can be different.
This resonates with the personal experience of Holloway, the Duke professor. In 1999, she was working on a book about African American mourning when her own son died. At the time, he was serving 95 years in prison for a string of crimes, including rape and attempted murder, which she traces in part to his unraveling mental state. He was on a work detail in a prison cotton field when he and two other inmates took off running, attempting to escape. A corrections officer fired 19 shots. Holloway is still haunted by an aerial image taken from a helicopter, shown on the news: a white sheet in the middle of the field, and under it, the body of her black son.
The historical resonance of his state-sanctioned death also haunts her. “After all, the pitiful traverse from plantation landscape to prison cotton fields was only the short matter of a century and a few score years,” she wrote in her resulting book Passed On: African American Mourning Stories, a Memorial.
“I don’t mitigate at all the violence and trauma that my son inflicted on his victims,” Holloway says. “But in the end, he was our son and we were left to bury his body.” She and her husband specifically wanted to work with a black funeral home after their son’s death—it was one way of getting assurance that their son’s body would be treated with respect. “We expected them to treat him as a child who was loved,” she says. “I don’t think I could have had that conversation with a white funeral director.”