The black funeral home in history

In this case, you’re Chester Miller, a funeral director, and a family is in need of your services.

Indianapolis-Recorder-November-5-1938-Hoosier-State-Chronicles
Indianapolis IN Recorder-November 5, 1938
In response to a reference question, I discovered that 10% of undertakers/morticians/funeral directors were African-American in 2016. But that fact doesn’t get to the historic import of the black funeral home.

US Funerals notes: “In the United States there is a rich cultural heritage of black-owned and operated funeral homes. Indeed black funeral parlors were some of the first businesses to be set up by African-Americans after the abolition of slavery.”

Funeralwise agrees: “Since few white undertakers would serve the African American community, black undertakers created independent businesses to fill the need. During the Civil War black soldiers were often assigned to burial details, recovering and burying the dead, but also assisting with keeping death records and finding ways to preserve remains to be sent home to other parts of the country for interment…

“These experiences prepared many soldiers for work in the burial industry, not only allowing them to serve their brothers and sisters in their time of grief but also allowing them to preserve numerous funeral customs associated with their African heritage.”

Edwin Jackson, a licensed black funeral director, and embalmer, shares a more recent history: “The local sheriff is on the other end and says he needs you to pick up a body… You’re used to putting your evenings and sleep on hold. In this case, you’re Chester Miller, a funeral director, and a family is in need of your services. Today you have been called to pick up a body that was found floating in the Tallahatchie River. You arrive on the scene and immediately you see the battered, broken, and decomposed body of a young boy…

“I use this story surrounding Emmett Till’s death to show how death has been used as a catalyst within the civil right movement and emphasize the role black funeral directors have played in such movements. Sixty years later, we see the maturity of a new movement that now flies under the banner of Black Lives Matter. We also see a new generation of black funeral directors… looking to support our community in the undertaking of such movements.”

While cultural changes are hitting black funeral homes, the institution has long been a business of loyalty, especially in the South. When they died, both my parents were tended to by the nearby African-American mortician in Charlotte, NC.

There is a group, the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, founded in 1924. Though by 1957 it had taken on the new name, its history makes clear that it is geared to the black funeral director.

Rev. Robert Pennock (1926 – 2019)

The funeral of Robert Pennock will be on Saturday, February 16 at our old stomping grounds, Trinity UMC.

Bob PennockThe third funeral I will sing at this calendar year is for the Rev. Robert Pennock.

At the FOCUS churches service in early February, I happened to be sitting behind Nancy, an alto at Trinity United Methodist Church in Albany. I used to sing with Nancy there until 2000 and “the troubles.”

Nancy enjoyed my familiar voice behind her. It prompted me to say that back in the 1990s, that Trinity choir was really good. And Bob Pennock was a large part of that.

I generally sat near Bob in the choir loft. When I joined the ensemble in early 1983, my choir singing skills were rusty. As the bass soloist and section leader, he was quite helpful in getting me on track.

He and his wife Holly often hosted choir functions at their home. I watched his younger kids, David and Jessica, grow up in the church.

There was a move at Trinity in 1997 or early 1998 to consider changing the organizational structure of Trinity. It was allowed by the United Methodist governing body. But it was Bob who rightly said, “Where are the checks and balances?” The proposed plan, it seemed, gave too much power to the pastor.

As a minister ordained the year I was born, he immediately recognized the potential for usurpation of congregational authority. He voiced what I, who had served as chair of the Administrative Board, had only been thinking.

Someone said, “Give [the new structure] a chance,” and it was passed. Just as predicted by Bob, the pastor achieved more control without accountability, which led to my departure and that of others less than three years later.

I would see Bob only sporadically after that, including at least twice at a small rural church he served as pastor in the early 2000s.

The funeral of Robert Pennock will be on Saturday, February 16 at our old stomping grounds, Trinity UMC. We will sing two John Rutter pieces, The Lord is My Shepherd from the Requiem, and The Lord Bless You and Keep You, music I first learned while I was singing with Bob and Holly.

Cousin Donald Yates (1943-2016)

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Donald Yates was my late mother’s first cousin. As I explained when his brother Robert died last year, they, their late older brother Raymond (d. 1978), and their older sister Frances were my mother’s closest relatives, though Raymond, the oldest, was a decade and a day younger than Mom.

They lived in Binghamton, until their dad Ernie died suddenly in 1954, when Charlotte and the kids moved to St. Albans, Queens in New York City. The Greens would go down and the Yates would come up at least annually. Their kids, including Don’s’s kids Donnie and Tanya, were the closest relatives my siblings and I had, even though they were a decade or more younger than us.

My late father arranged the flowers Continue reading “Cousin Donald Yates (1943-2016)”

The winter of my discontent

Friday the 13th, my lovely bride got up at 4 a.m. and drove me to the train station.

tired.ferretIt’s cold, it’s snowy, but it’s also winter in upstate New York, so I’m not one to complain. (I save my vexation about the weather for the summer.)

So the stuff outside is not specifically bothering me, though if I were to, it would sound like The Grounds for Violence – Key of Bart. People who don’t shovel their walkways, ESPECIALLY at the corners, and make it difficult to walk; now THEY really bug me.

I did fall down outside recently, trudging through the white stuff, Continue reading “The winter of my discontent”

November Rambling: Candy, Poetry, and 50 Shades

SamuraiFrog, bless his heart, is writing 50 Shades of of Grey, as Summarized by a Smartass.

An Opinion Piece On A Controversial Topic. “Pretty awesome meta.”

Gettysburg Address at 150.

Heidi Boghosian joins Bill Moyers for a conversation on what we all need to know about surveillance in America. “Spying on democracy,” indeed.

The defense should not be permitted to refer to the prosecutor… as “the Government.” It might sound… prejudicial.

Texas Man Sued for Defamation by Fracking Company that Contaminated his Water Supply.

“You could get better if you wanted to.” “You should just try harder.” “You’re being lazy.” “You need to be more motivated.” “You’re so needy.”

Methodist Pastor Has 30 Days to Renounce His Gay Children or Be Defrocked; it’s a matter of right and wrong.

Always Go to the Funeral.

Exclusive excerpt from Art Spiegelman’s Co-Mix retrospective. Some lifetime ago, before Maus Continue reading “November Rambling: Candy, Poetry, and 50 Shades”