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Death Rituals of Black Culture in America

The funeral traditions of Black Americans are strongly connected with the history of slavery, slave trading, and experiences of discrimination, which have greatly affected the death, dying, and bereavement practices of African-American families. Indeed, Dr. Ronald K. Barrett, in “Contemporary African-American Funeral Rites and Traditions” (1995), points out that “descriptions of contemporary African-American funeral and mourning customs illustrate the persistence of traditional customs despite time and circumstance.”

In our African-American community, the second largest minority group in the United States, the traditional funeral process has undergone various changes due to the increased immigration, great demand for cremations, decline in religious practices, and contemporary funeral rites. However, such cultural procedures as announcing the death, care of the deceased, and a method of disposition have remained consistent of African-American funeral services and, moreover, can be easily traced back to African roots of the Bakongo and the LaDogaa tribes. Thus, many of the existed superstitions, expressions, sayings, and religious beliefs relating to death and burials are still based on the ancestral rituals. Moreover, social class of the dead person also influences the way of traditional funeral practices, since the affluent blacks tend to become less traditional.

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It is important to admit that in many cultures, death is a forbidden topic of discussion. However, in the black community, various death traditions, mourning practices, and burial rites are the important aspects of culture. In fact, the term “transition”, which means that the person has “gone to the next life”, is often used among Black Americans for dying process. Therefore, in the traditional black cultural experience people understand birth and death as a natural part of the rhythm of life. African Americans have a great belief in an afterlife, which is a fundamental aspect of death and dying.

When some of our relatives or neighbors die, my mother is usually preoccupied with preparing meals, which is sent to those who suffer a loss. This is a time when everyone gathers and shares the memories of the deceased. Throughout my school years, I was involved several times in a traditional two-day wake, or the old “sit-up”, which means that the deceased is “going home” to the spirit world. I will never forget the emotionalism and the priority that our black community gives to funerals, and the importance of our family gathering at the time of a death. The mourning period usually takes from five to seven days before the actual funeral process occurs. A ceremony known as “a wake” takes place with close friends of the family of the deceased, who pay respects to the family and view the body at the funeral parlor or at the church, or the home of the deceased. During a prayer vigil, every member of the family encircles the dying person and tries to give him or her all kindness in order to make the transition to the next life easier. The wake can include a video presentation of the life of the deceased with his/her favorite music playing in the background. The funeral begins with ritualistic drumming, singing, and dancing, which lasts to the final resting place.

In our African-American community, there is an old belief that the family members should not bury the departed on a rainy day, since the rain is a sign that the devil has come for the soul of the deceased one. According to old creeds and superstitions, it is important to bury the decedent with his/her feet directed to east so that he/she can resurrect on Judgment Day. Coins are usually put on his/her eyes or hands, or even located around the grave for admittance to the spirit world or just as the sign of the decedent’s tribune to the commune of ancestors. Instead of the religious items, which were historically placed in the casket, the favorite items of the deceased are more often displayed there.

Finally, Black Americans use various death rituals, which are mainly based on religious or cultural traditions and beliefs. It is highly believed that only a correct burial with numerous important events and transitions will bring a dead person peace.

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