Race & The Funeral Profession: What Jessica Mitford Missed

When Jessica Mitford criticized the funeral profession, Dr. Kami Fletcher argues that it wasn’t the African American funeral director Mitford had in mind.

From the onset, let me be clear, I 100% agreed with Jessica Mitford because as she so rightly pointed out in her best seller, The American Way of Death, the funeral trade in the U.S. was unregulated until the Federal Trade Commission stepped in with new trade rules for Funeral Directors in 1975. The decades-long un-regulation led to inconsistent pricing resulting in higher and higher costs – the “high cost of dying” as it is commonly termed.  The main driving force behind funerals increasing exponentially over the years had been Funeral Directors charging what they wanted and putting it under a vague and catchall term, “funeral services”. 

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when funeral and death work were exiting the home, “funeral services” included itemized items like washing/dressing the body, embalming, horse-and-buggy hearse, and coffin. The bereaved knew exactly for what they were paying. Toward the close of the twentieth century, as Mitford said, it is not clear at all.  Giving examples of Houston, Texas area funeral homes that charged from $1,450 to $9,910 for the same. exact. products. and. services, Mitford proved her point.  She even went further when giving the heartbreaking example of Funeral Directors in 1980’s New York charging an arbitrary $200 to $500 “handling fee” for those decedents who died from AIDS. 

What’s most convincing about Mitford’s book was that her argument was supported by internal information from the funeral trade industry itself.  Mitford’s argument was composed of facts and figures, data from undertaking trade journals, in-house memorandums, witnessed talks given by those in the trade at their professional conferences, even confidential letters leaked to her. She also exchanged correspondence with leaders of the National Funeral Directors Association. The data showcased from the later was where she really took on the whole field of funeral directing. . . and won! 

Jessica Mitford. Source: BBC



Embalming, reasoned Mitford was where undertakers levelled up and became professionally trained Funeral Directors.  In other words, no longer could just “anybody” perform death work, it was for only those who had access and knowledge to the ways of chemical embalming. Well, Mitford attacked the need for embalming uncovering that if its true nature was to actually preserve the body, well then, it failed miserably. To prove her point, she gave a very long and detailed description of Mr. August Chelini who happily paid for every service offered for his mother’s last rites under the condition that she would be preserved, i.e. unbothered by insects. Chelini visited his mother weekly and noticed ants around her crypt.  Still having seen ants a year and half later, Chelini ordered and received a disinterment only to discover his mother a “decomposed and insect and worm infested mess”.[1]  With the truth of embalming laid bare, Mitford questioned the fairness, the integrity, the overall benefit and purpose of the Funeral Director to the American public. 

Race & The Funeral Profession: What Jessica Mitford Missed

Controlling death work and then capitalizing on it was against everything for which Mitford stood. Throughout her adult life, she had worked with the Civil Rights Congress and the Communist Party. Presumably then, she saw Funeral Directors as controlling death work and relegating all things funeral and burial to private corporations when the power should be with the bereaved family. Her attitudes and activism towards privately controlling the means of production informed her analysis and understanding of the American Funeral Director. Rightly so, but the class analysis was simplistic in that it was not complicated by race, ethnicity, immigration or even gender.  It was surprising that Mitford did not include the multiple Asian American cemeteries and Latinx death-ways present in the California area where she lived and worked.

 Who were these American funeral directors that Mitford tried and found guilty in a public court of opinion? 
Packaged within her main points was the larger idea that when Funeral Directors professionalized in the early 20th century, what came with it was the worst parts of capitalism – entrepreneurship whose sole purpose was to profit. Ultimate profit above all else was especially alarming in the death care industry because the work was with grieving families who, understandably, were unable to make rational consumer choices.  Most of all, Mitford made the American public realize that they had been bamboozled and did not need the American Funeral Director.

Click image for full text. In Vinita, Oklahoma the White undertaker, Lewis Rogers, refuses to provide funeral service to bereaved African American family, Ella Hill. Source: The Muskogee Cemetery May 7, 1909.

Just who were these American funeral directors that Mitford tried and found guilty in a public court of opinion?  From 1900-1960’s, the initial study period of her book, who were viewed as American funeral directors?  It definitely was not the African American funeral director because she/he was living under Jim Crow segregation – barred based on race from even obtaining membership in the National Funeral Directors Association. Relegated to “colored sections” in white only cemeteries while flat out denied burial plots within others due to racially restrictive covenants sanctioned by the cemetery board of trustees. This racial exclusion and white hostility led African Americans to start their own organization in 1925 – the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association from which Mitford collected zero data, conducted zero interviews.

 During the period that Mitford wrote, African American funeral directors were activists in the fight for civil and human rights – a fight against white supremacy.  

In To Serve the Living, author Suzanne Smith said it plainly: “For African American undertakers, the publication of Jessica Mitford’s book was, initially lost amid the more pressing concerns of the civil rights movement.”[2]  African Americans were dying in what Karla Holloway in Passed On calls “mournful collectives and disconcerting circumstances,” i.e. lynchings, white mob violence mislabeled as race riots, government experiments, and racially targeted genocide described as birth control.[3]  Therefore, African American undertakers were not concerned with tricking mourning families into turning over their life savings to bury their loved ones. During the period that Mitford wrote, African American funeral directors were activists in the fight for civil and human rights – a fight against white supremacy. 

Click image for full text. In Miami, Florida African American undertakers won their suit with the Dade County Commissioners for discrimination in pay when burying the African American poor. African Americans were paid $35 while White undertakers were paid $100 for the same service. Source: Afro-American. February 2, 1957.

And swindling their clientele out of every dime she/he had, frankly, would have been counter intuitive. Smith goes on to discuss that with their wealth, social status, mobility, visibility, and connections, African American funeral directors led the charge in the Civil Rights Movement by using their funeral parlors as meeting places. They threatened not to buy their funeral cars from white establishments if they didn’t hire African American workers. African American funeral directors bailed-out jailed protesters. In 1963 funeral director A. G. Gaston posted $5,000 for the bail of both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and Civil Rights Activist Ralph Abernathy. What’s more, after a rally CORE Leader James Farmer, in fear of his life, had to hurriedly escape out of town in a funeral hearse. African American funeral directors fought for justice; they did not have time to collectively concoct schemes to exploit the bereaved.

In Baltimore, Maryland Charles Law, African American Mortician, won his 7-year legal battle desegregating all golf courses in the city. Source: Afro-American June 26, 1948 & Afro-American August 1, 1970



What Jessica Mitford Missed

What Mitford missed was that the history of late 19th & early 20th century death work in the African American community did not start with embalming, but it emerged as a need for caring for Black bodies.  Historically, Whites brutalized African Americans which often resulted in death; and White undertakers refused to care for these Black bodies. Those White undertakers who did, they only embalmed Black bodies and treated the bereaved African American family as second class, i.e. forcing them to enter through a back door and only giving them the worn-down looking hearses. This created a dire need for the African American undertaker. So, when Charles and Mattie Bell Harris married and moved to Birmingham, Alabama and opened their general store in 1893 they had no idea that they would soon sell caskets right alongside their bread. They did because the necessity was there.  Harris Undertaking Company was established to fill a need – a need for quality funeral service to the Black Community[4]

Five prominent African American Undertakers from the nearly 100 who owned, operated, and or worked withfuneral homes from 1900-1960 in Baltimore, Maryland.

 Funerals are activist tools that proclaim three-dimensional personhood. 
What Mitford missed was that the job of the African American undertaker was to take care of the body with dignity and respect. He/She had to make the police officer’s bullet holes disappear, hide the rope marks from the lynching, the infinite bruises from the KKK terrorists. An open casket funeral is a staple in the African American funeral tradition; funeral goers expect for their loved ones to look just like themselves. African American funeral directors, then, are expected to use the knowledge of their cultural death norms to prepare the body for a final showing resulting in clothing, hair, make-up being on point (insert a snap!). This was illustrated so clearly and beautifully in the documentary “Homegoing” when funeral director Isaiah Holmes made sure that something as simple as the nail polish matched the outfit. The point is not excess or exuberance but dignity and respect. I argue that in our racist society that stereotypes African Americans as only laborers for Whites, criminals and hypersexualized Jezebels, funerals are activist tools that proclaim three-dimensional personhood. African American funeral directors made up Black women and men in their Sunday best reminiscent of kings and queens. In death, their community work, their kinship networks, and how the ones who knew them most was put on public display. 

A funeral procession in Monroe, Georgia, for George Dorsey and Dorothey Dorsey Malcolm, who were lynched in 1946 Source: Bettmann / CORBIS

 Black mourners could also now, take part in the material culture buying caskets and renting limousines denied by Jim Crow and racist America. 

What Mitford missed was that in the African American funerary tradition, there is emphasis on ornamentation. The deceased as well as the mourners are presented at their best. This is not for show but for respect and honor.  The rhetoric of the “ostentatious funeral” does not make it into this narrative because appearance was something very important in African American cultural death norms. African Americans looking their best in death was used as a tool of activism. Black people dressed in suits, formal wear, and fancy dresses with heads uncovered displaying beautiful hairstyles challenging Mammy/Aunt Jemima racial stereotypes. In addition, like the Black funeral directors, Black mourners could also now, take part in the material culture buying caskets and renting limousines denied by Jim Crow and racist America.

What Mitford missed was that death work was one of the major ways that allowed African American women and men entry into the cash economy.  With limitations on earning money, death work allowed African American women and men the opportunity to acquire capital, build wealth, and own businesses. As a viable trade and then profession, African American funeral directors used their newfound financial successful to help others in the Black community. They invested back into their communities because the majority believed in racial uplift via self-help, i.e. only Black folks are going to help Black folks up the economic ladder. Case in point, African American funeral directors were involved in many social clubs for the betterment of the community and financially aided others in time of crisis. Frank Berry, the first licensed Black embalmer in Meridian, Mississippi, during the Great Depression served families for little or no financial return; gave out food and free rent to the many in need. He even bailed out Civil Rights Protestors.[5]  Reverend John Thomas Patton, founder of Patton Brothers Funeral Home in Franklin, Tennessee (now also operational in Nashville, Tennessee) was “instrumental in getting school buses running for Black students in Franklin” and “at the forefront of the fight for Black teachers to receive equal pay to that of their white counterparts”.[6]  Patton brothers would even let bereaved families pay with their fresh farm chickens when cash was unavailable. Murray Henderson, via his Undertaking Company, paid the medical expenses of and provided food to those afflicted during the 1918 Flu epidemic. He accepted little to no money to bury those who died as a result of the flu.



Conclusion

Mitford homogenized not only death care but also death norms, beliefs about death and burial customs. Her entire book discussed only the activities and actions of white male funeral directors.  Ultimately, what Mitford missed was a context that should have been framed with an understanding of how European immigrants (who eventually became racialized white persons) negotiated the death customs of their mother countries within the American melting pot. This missing context leaves readers with absolutely no understanding of how race, whiteness, and racism drove a white male majority to death work. Instead we are left to think that death work and death practices were just in an inevitable linear progression of capitalist greed.


About the Author

Dr. Kami Fletcher is an Associate professor of history at Delaware State University where she teaches classes on Women’s Studies and the African American experience.  Her newest course entitled “African American Deathways and Deathwork” examines African American norms and ideas surrounding death as well as encourages students to see how death intersects with race, class, gender, religion, region.

 




Citations

[1] Ibid.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The 100 Black Women of Funeral Service: Legacy in Funeral Service. The 2010 African American Funeral Home Hall of Fame Induction. August 4, 2010.  Anniversary Booklet.

[4] Suzanne E. Smith, To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

[5] Karla Holloway,  Passed On: African American Mourning Stories. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008.

[6] Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death Revisited. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Posted by Dr. Kami Fletcher

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