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.