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).