On April 7, 2017, my family and I hosted a home-going to celebrate the life of my great aunt. A home-going is a traditional African American, Christian funeral service held to rejoice the deceased person’s returning to heaven, and this elaborate funeral ritual has a deep history dating back to the arrival of African slaves in America in the 1600s. There are several aspects that set this service apart from the traditional funeral, including the week-long visitation to the bereaved family’s home, the wake, and the elaborate funeral procession. About a week prior to the service, a plethora of friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members who live in different areas of the world travel to visit the bereaved family every day to offer their condolences (the same people may or may not visit the family every day). A wake is then held for the deceased between 2 to 3 days prior to the funeral, and this allows family members and friends to have few personal moments with the deceased. On the day of the funeral, a group of police escorts arrive to the bereaved family’s house, and the family is escorted to the church. During this process, the family bypasses certain traffic laws, such as passing through red lights. At the church, some of the women of the family act as flower girls, and their job is to remove the elaborate bouquets of flowers that will be placed on the casket during the funeral. The service itself is often an emotional, high energy event that entails family members singing African American hymns and a boisterous eulogy by the pastor. Afterwards, the funeral procession travels to the gravesite, and people wait until the body is partially buried before leaving to return to the church or to the family’s house to dine with one another.
I never realized that my burial practice was significant or distinct to Black American people until taking this class, which is unnerving to me because home-going services are integral to my family’s traditions. They allow us to celebrate the life of our loved one while showering them with expensive items, such as custom caskets, support a black business (an African American mortuary), and re-connect with family. These services also allow me to learn about the richness and history of my family and our culture through our conversations as well as through visiting the gravesite because generations of my family are buried in a black owned gravesite in Atlanta.
(Note: There are several variations to these services, but I am sharing my experiences with home-goings.)
Statues from Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial in Dallas, Texas. This cemetery is one of the African American cemeteries that was often robbed. Image courtesy of Maribel Rubio
Grave robbing African American cemeteries was prominent during the 19th and 20th century, which probes a question: why were these bodies stolen? To answer this question, one needs to understand a few details about the circumstances leading to the thefts. First, there was a surge in the number of medical schools in the US that created an increased need for cadavers in anatomy labs. Secondly, the belief in having a “proper burial” to honor the dead became popularized among African Americans because they were denied the right to hold a memorial service for the dead during slavery. Lastly, the importance of proper burials meant that most Americans were unwilling to donate their loved ones dead body to medical schools because dissecting cadavers was viewed as taboo. To meet the needs for cadavers in medical schools, several secretly hired grave robbers to rob bodies from African American cemeteries because black people were legally and socially unable to protect themselves, especially during the 19th century when thousands of black people were enslaved and lacked any agency. Some Northern anatomy professors even forged agreements with Southerners to ship black cadavers in barrels to the north for dissection purposes. The implications of using majority black bodies resulted in the dehumanization of black people in the medical system, a lack of trust between black people and medical researchers, and reticence of donating bodies to medicine within the black community. The disproportionate use of black bodies for dissection purposes also unconsciously formed a views of black people as only medical experimentation material, which has a significant history in the US from the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells for research without her consent to the Tuskegee Experiment. Thankfully, the exploitation of black cadavers and grave robbing has ceased years ago in the US, and medical schools have become cognizant about honoring cadavers by holding memorial services for the dead at the end of their anatomy courses as well as implementing policies to respect the dead, such as not allowing photographs or video recordings to occur in labs.
- Killgrove, K. 2015. ‘How Grave Robbers And Medical Students Helped Dehumanize 19th Century Blacks And The Poor,’ Forbes, Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2015/07/13/dissected-bodies-and-grave-robbing-evidence-of-unequal-treatment-of-19th-century-blacks-and-poor/3/#f2b5f781b4bf. [24 March 2017]
- Davidson, J 2007, ‘Resurrection Men in Dallas: The illegal use of black bodies as medical cadavers,’ International Journal of Historical Archaeology. Available from: https://link-springer-com.proxy.library.emory.edu/article/10.1007/s10761-007-0029-3
- Washington, H 2006, Medical Apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from colonial times to the present, Anchor books, New York.