Hair should be natural and professional in appearance. Ponytails, Braids, Cornrows, and Dreadlocks are not permitted. These two sentences speak volumes about discrimination in mortuary academia. Following the story of a woman trying to apply to the John A. Gupton college and coming across a troubling guideline within the application, The Grave Woman (Joél Simone Anthony) rightfully took to TikTok to open up the conversation surrounding the demand that students alter their appearance to be considered at all.
Joél Simone Anthony’s call to action led us to engage her in conversation about the history, importance, and general misunderstandings of Black hairstyles; the future of racism in the death care industry; and how to build a better future for BIPOC people working in death care.
As part of larger efforts to eradicate racism in death care, yannick-robin of TalkDeath sat down with licensed funeral director, insurance agent, and sacred grief practitioner, Joél Simone Anthony (The Grave Woman). The following is a breakdown of our conversation, as well as information that adds context to the issues at hand.
Racial Disparities and Discrimination in the Death Care Industry: A Conversation with The Grave Woman
yannick-robin (YR): I had some things that I wanted to run by you. Some are questions, others are just thoughts that I’ve had recently that I feel might warrant some talk back, and you seem like a really epic person to have this conversation with. First, I wanted to thank you for putting this petition together: Remove Racist & Discriminatory Language from Mortuary College Dress Codes and Handbooks. I actually was not aware of the rulebook stuff until I read the petition.
It’s really, really bewildering to me that we’ve gone from having school be, you know, people doing procedures on bodies with hands, no gloves, because they didn’t know any better, reusing tools before cleaning because they didn’t know any better. To now having all of these rules say things like, “to even think about coming in here. You can’t wear your braids.”This is true! Surgeon Halstead was advised on the idea of gloves by his trusted assistant Caroline Hampton, who wanted to quit based on the illnesses she was contracting from her hands being contaminated at work. More on that at Science History.org.
The Grave Woman (GW): You used a very perfect word, which is bewildering. I just want to preface by saying, my intention is never to divide. We are already in a very divided industry, especially here in the south. But it doesn’t say anything in there [the mortuary college handbooks] about certain headdresses that other cultures wear. What’s your thought process when you’re thinking about braids, locks, I mean, even ponytails, you know? It’s very weird. And it feels very targeted. There are other communities that are doing these styles. But most people that do them, look like me. Yet, I’m unprofessional. How did you come up with this? What was the thought process? Was it intentional? Is it intentional now? Or did you just copy the last 40 pages of your handbook? And then slap the new stuff on top of it? Like, how did we get here?
The American Funeral Industry
YR: Well, I think back to the history of the funeral services industry in the United States, and how it came out of embalming being something that spread outside of doctors and scientists after the Civil War. I feel like that’s where segregation started. And it came down from there. Because the Black soldiers were the ones that were in charge of finding the bodies and burying bodies, not learning the proper embalming. That was saved for other people.According to The Atlantic, undertakers would set up at nearby battlefields to ensure that bodies would make the long trips home without decomposing once embalmed. The “lowly task” of burying the war’s dead that remained where they’d fallen, was left to Black soldiers.
GW: And again, not to segregate and not to divide, but I don’t really know that there’s a huge paper trail on other communities of color being pulled or pushed away into certain areas of work in the way that it was exposed to Black people in history. There’s just not a lot written. And I think a lot of that, especially being here (in the south of the United States), is because this was a very this was a heavily populated Native American area. And I know that their practices as far as diseases were concerned, were very sacred. And a lot of people didn’t witness what they did. However, thinking about the fact that they were here, then the colonizers came and then brought slaves back with them who handled their disease. I can imagine like, just this is just in my mind. The slaves and Native Americans were probably considered about the same socioeconomic status. So, or not even socioeconomic, but just social status, right? Who took care of the Native Americans and taught them the practice of embalming? I mean, it was done by Black people originally in Egypt, yeah. People went and studied in those schools (in Europe), and they brought it back to their cultures. So where was that lapse here in the United States?It seems the closest Natives have gotten to embalming in the West is in Central and South Atlantic tribes where embalming and mummifying would occur (via the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying). It’s also of note that the European boom in the culture shift towards embalming stemmed from an inspiration from Egyptian rituals and began in the Renaissance Era desire to preserve cadavers for dissection purposes, which lead to study. The next boom in embalming becoming more accepted wasn’t until after the Civil War, in the US (via Funeral.EliteCME.com).
YR: It’s like it went: Egypt, then Europe where it “became white”, and then the United States because of colonialism leading to wars leading to mass deaths, and then stayed white because of slavery and now, current racial tensions and oppressions, I think is, the map of it. We went up and around instead of to the side and across (North of Egypt to Europe, then west to the US). Which is so fascinating. Ah, frustrating times.
So do you think that part of it is like a difference in the culture or the mindset where historically white funeral directors would rather keep the money to themselves, and then henceforth have like, some sort of anger that they feel towards people of color wanting to become funeral directors, because they know that the difference in mindset is to share the wealth of the community? Because I know that there’s a history of Black funeral directors providing bail money to activists, when they were jailed before. And they’ve also like, been there and done service for families who couldn’t afford it, if a family member passed from a hate crime, like having been lynched or something like that. Also, fun fact, Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the last people that saw him was the person who was driving him around, who was actually a funeral home worker.
Here’s a history of Black people in funeral businesses using their resources to help the cause and the community. So, I wonder, what I’m trying to get at is yes, there’s racism. But why? What is underneath the racism? What fuels the racism? Like, would this be a fueling factor, not wanting to see communities thrive? Because in a world with so much gentrification happening, Black funeral homes are closing down more and more and the history is getting lost because they just can’t keep up.GW: Right? I think that’s a really good perspective. And I honestly have never thought about it like that because if you think back, Black funeral homes were the first businesses in our communities. Yeah, then providing the free support for activists, supporting families that had been victims of hate crimes. I could see how that was a link. I’ve never thought of it like that before. Honestly, I think that’s a very good perspective. Modern day as far as gentrification and Black funeral homes shutting down, do I think that that is specifically tied to racism? No. I think that is tied to generations of families, having businesses and then generations today, just not being interested because of having access to other careers.
Because (culturally) “either you’re going to be a funeral director, a pastor or teacher,” you know? Now, I think it’s the complete opposite. Perhaps we’re losing our funeral and death care culture, because we have access to so many other career paths. I don’t think that that’s racism, or racially influenced.
YR: I think that’s a beautiful point. I think my worry is, how do we preserve it the culture inside of that Black family’s funeral home when they leave? How do we make sure that that funeral home – which understandably, (speaking to the person who wants to venture into other careers, instead of maintain the business) go live your life, if you don’t want to do the family business, if you’re not passionate about it, don’t do it, that’s okay. But what’s going to happen, though? Is this going to get bought out by a white person? Are they gonna re-frame and redo the whole building? Is the whole history of it gonna be lost? I guess there’s a gap there that I’m worried about. But that’s less for this conversation? Because it’s not really a racism thing.
GW: Honestly, I feel here’s the racism part, that I think people don’t realize: all of this “new” green burial and eco-friendly burial stuff. Those are African burial practices that are now whitewashed to be this new thing that it’s not. And these services are now being targeted/practiced in areas where the majority of the population is not Black. It’s nothing new. Doulaship? It’s a very Black art. A lot of the ceremony that we’re seeing around death care ties very closely to what our practices are, of Homegoing are now everyone’s into this spiritual death care experience. It’s always been that for us. There’s an appropriation there that I don’t think people want to recognize.Homegoing is an African-American and Black-Canadian Christian funeral tradition which marks the “going home” of the deceased to the Lord.
What Black Hair Means
YR: If my family member dies, and the only person around me is a white funeral director, and there’s no one else in the building that’s not a white person, I have no security, that they’re going to know how to touch that person’s hair, that they’re going to honor that body. Because for me, it’s not just about are you going to do this service. I care very much, and I’m very spiritual. And for me, that whole process is sacred. Every single step of touching that person’s body, you need to be mindful and be honoring that person and understanding the weight that you’re carrying of that person and their culture, the second that their family walks in the room with that case. Is it not a beautiful way to demonstrate to your communities that you are supportive, and that you understand them by expressing yourself in the very ways that they need help? Let the funeral director wear braids!
GW: I’m really curious to know why there isn’t any, like, I have a class called Cultural Competency: Black Hair and Skin Care for Non-Ethnic Funeral Professionals. Why isn’t (a class like) this in mortuary school? I had to create that, because nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about it. Every student that I’ve had, is like “I’ve learned more in this hour than I learned in school about anything to do with Black people.” And they’re always amazed at what our hair represents, you know? And I feel like with Homegoing for us, death was more important than life. Because death meant that we could go back home. We didn’t understand why we were here, how we transitioned. And we were just told, like, it’s almost like telephone, we’re told about this magical place that we’ve come from, and the further down the generational line we get, we lose a piece of the message, right? But the thing that we all innately know is…my hair gotta be right.
YR: It makes me upset that a class like that is not a requirement to graduate and become a funeral director. As a person who in their living experiences has had a white hairstylist look at me and say, “No, no, we don’t know how to do ethnic hair here,” thank you. Thank you for this. I love it. I wanted to know, if because you just now mentioned that you’ve had feedback of people’s experience of taking the course. Has there been any follow up after time saying, “I took the course. And then I took the information back. And now I’m coming back to you to tell you that it’s been different.” Could you maybe share how some of that has been?
GW: I don’t know if you know who Hollis Funeral Home is, she shocked me. She was one of my students back in 2021. She posted online, she was at the hair store buying supplies. And she’s like, “I learned this one from The Grave Woman and it has made a difference.” And that means a lot when it comes from those people that do what you do, of course. Monica Torres was another one. In the class, she’s like, “that’s a great tip. I never thought of that. Something as simple as using a black eyeliner to hide cotton in the inside of the nose on a Black person instead of just leaving the cotton there, because it’s not as noticeable on a white person. Something simple. So that family doesn’t see it and say, ‘Oh, he had something white in his nose that I could see.’”
YR: It could be- it could take away from the experience of being with the person.
GW: Or students coming back and saying, “I still don’t know what to do with Black hair. But I now know how to talk to families about the care of their hair,” that is the one right there. Or saying, “I don’t call them dreadlocks anymore, because that’s offensive to people.” Or people coming back and saying, “you know, I had this happen. And even though I didn’t know exactly what to do, I knew what to tell the hairdresser. I didn’t say the hair was kinky, or her hair was nappy or call her ashy,” conversations like that. Or “I had a deceased come in with braids. And I knew not to cut them from her scalp. But to actually take them out,” so many little things that you don’t think about- at least I don’t think about because they’re second nature to me.
Learning the history of braids or how our hair represents social status, marital status, spiritual journeys, the different types of locks. There’s not just one type of lock, or the fact that we all don’t have the same hair texture.
Education & the Limits of Knowledge
YR: Something that you said that really stuck with me just now was someone’s ability after having learned about this, even if they don’t know how to deal with it themselves, to have gained the ability to say, “Hey, I recognize that I’m out of my depth here. And I would love to share this experience with you, me and perhaps someone else who knows how to do this. And then we can all together find a way to honor this person and I can learn something.”
GW: I worked at a funeral home in Georgia. And one of the directors would get terrified whenever a certain group of people would come in with their head wraps and their facial coverings and head coverings, because she lost a family member at 911. So she associated that headcovering with a terrorist act, right? This was before my class existed before anything. And just telling her, “Well, this has a spiritual significance. And honestly, this is one of the most peaceful groups of people that you will meet. And they’re not coming in as a threat with their head covering, they’re coming in that way because of their spiritual beliefs. And they want to be able to feel safe and not looked at.” And that changed her whole perspective.
YR: I know that it’s not always a conversation like that, that will be what changes people. But it is sometimes a conversation like that that can change – and it will change – quite a lot of people. More people than they would think when considering to say something like that out loud, and choosing not to. And I think for some reason, there’s still so much of a fear and a discomfort when opening up about the things that we don’t know or that we don’t understand. And I think that dropping that is necessary for change.
GW: And see, that’s what I said at the beginning: I don’t ever want to be divisive, because the thing that I hear the most, especially from students in that class, is “I don’t want to say the wrong thing. So I don’t say anything,” right? But then that communicates to the other person that you’re in alignment with things that are wrong. But I also understand the fear of saying something, and being offensive. And then for me, I have, I’m gonna be honest with you, I have to be very aware of my ego in a lot of situations, because people say some crazy shit. And you’re right. But I’ve had to learn that. It’s because they want to know, in some cases, and other cases, they are being, you know, not kind. But I’ll say in 90% of the cases people just really want to know, and the way that I deliver the message, which I think is a part of the conversation, we don’t have as Black people, we just want to call people racist. And that’s it.
People want to know different, they need to know different, but if we come into a conversation defensively, nothing’s going to happen. And you’re confirming what their thought was, you’re confirming their bias by coming in, defensively. So we have to kind of just be on offense, while understanding there’s a boundary. So what is that boundary? What does that look like? When do we cross the line between curiosity and offensiveness? And that’s going to be different for each person. And then also understanding, we talked about how certain practices are happening in certain parts of the country that Black people don’t populate? Is that intentional, right? Or that, because this is a more progressive area, and understanding that not all Black people have the same experience? Because that’s been a big issue is like people trying to just create a silo of what a Black experience isn’t. It’s so diverse.
YR: I think that’s also part of what comes with the trouble of what we do moving forward to make sure that this stuff stops happening, right? Because, the level of pain that I’ll experience next to the next person experiencing the same thing is completely different. And what we both want as a response from that person is completely different. And so, how do we make a universal resource that says, “here is how to help people understand this in a way that is patient. And that doesn’t hurt you while you’re educating.
But also, I’m sorry that you have to educate them, because you’re a member of this community, and it shouldn’t be our job.” But at this point, it feels to me, like since so much of the funeral industry seems to still be very, like family business owned, that it’s almost like if you came in and tried to talk to them about these things when getting a new job, it would almost sound like you as a family are thinking wrong about this issue.
GW: Yeah, that’s very true. I feel that everybody’s voice is important. I’m happy that like right now, at least in this population, the death care industry, my voice is out there. But there’s several other people having this experience as well. So maybe not focusing on one person’s perspective is a good way, and saying that we want these things to stop happening. What is that? What does that mean? What does that really mean? We want to just be tolerated?
YR: Or do we want you to rewire your understanding of what this is? What it means to us, why we have it, et cetera?
GW: Yes. And that is why. Because there’s a lot of different ways that this petition could have come about, right? But the reason I thought it was important to target the educational system, or the educational accreditation system, is because if it’s taught in schools, just like when you’re a little kid, it does require that at least on a professional level, which will make the next person’s experience with a professional different. And so there’s, there’s the bar set.
YR: That’s also kind of the initial gatekeeper, right? If you can’t get the degree, you can’t do the job. Right. And if you don’t take your braids out, you can’t get the degree so you can’t do your job.
GW: Right. So if the school changes what they are willing to, I don’t want to say accept, but if the school changes what the standard is, then you have professionals that are going to come together and say, “You know what, we’re sick of this.” That’s the hope.
YR: If they don’t, then the pickets come out. We’ll burn things, and that’s okay! We’ll burn things.
GW: *laughs* Burn it down. My soul, and my spirit just wants peace. When does it get to the point where you’re flipping over tables?
YR: So this next question is a little personal. A close person to me passed away about a year ago. His name was Butch. He was amazing. He was a white man. He was Jewish. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery by Black cemetery workers. And on the day of his funeral, his grandson, which is why I knew him, I saw him go over and thank the people who you know did the inurnment. That person looked like they hadn’t been spoken to by families very frequently, if ever, and if it happened, it didn’t happen in a good way. They looked kind of shocked and alarmed to be being spoken to.
Cut to earlier this year when his wife passed away. Before she passed, she was in her home with her hospice care team who were also all Black, and that felt notable. So I guess my question with that one is, what can we do to help? And I’m just gonna open this to, you know, BIPOC, or disabled or trans – marginalized communities working in the death care industry. How do we make them feel more loved and seen in a more casual and common way so that they’re not freaked out when it happens? Does that make sense?
GW: Yes, it does. I don’t want to say I’m sorry. But, I honor your experience with losing Butch. Because he was obviously important enough to you for this whole thing to have impacted you.
YR: He’s the reason why I got licensed as a cremator.
To be honest with you, I just feel like it’s as simple as honoring our humanity. I don’t feel like it’s a deep answer. I feel like we put all of these bullshit walls up, “They’re Black, they’re a lawyer, they’re a doctor…” None of that matters. We’re humans. And we want to be acknowledged, we want to be seen, and what better way to see and acknowledge someone than to express gratitude for something they’ve done for you. Or to just say, hello. I mean, you live in New York, you know how often you walk past another human being, and you don’t even make eye contact. So, I don’t think it’s so much of a racial or a marginalized thing. I just feel like it’s just honoring one another’s humanity. That’s it. Even if you don’t get along, even if you have different beliefs, even if you don’t want that person anywhere near you. Just saying, “Hello, good morning. How are you? I honor that you exist.” Like that. Honoring one another’s existence. That’s my answer.
YR: I think honor for me is such a huge word in, in why I do so much of what I do. And it seems like something that lacks in a lot of people that work in the death industry and ultimately, is what I was trying to get down to with this conversation with you. How do we get people to understand that at the root of this problem is a lack of honor, a lack of seeing the things in front of them that they’re discriminating against? These are things that are worth being honored, worth being seen, worth having in class, worth having in a funeral home, worth having at the morgue, worth having wherever, you know.
GW: Yeah, honoring each other’s existence. It’s so simple. And I’m not saying I get it right every time because I don’t, you know, but that’s it.