The glory days of black funeral homes infusing black communities with economic power have come and gone. Ebony Magazine reported 3000 black-owned funeral homes across the country in 1953. There are 1,200 or fewer black funeral homes in the United States today. In Philadelphia, where black funeral homes have traditionally wielded economic strength, the untimely closures have occurred over the past twenty years. At risk is the loss of a cultural institution of traditional mourning among African-Americans that has existed for centuries.
Only 75 black funeral homes in Philly exist today. The United States Census Data reports that African Americans make up 43.6% of the population in Philadelphia, translating into 657,343 black people seeking services from 105 black funeral directors. Lisa Branch Edward, the spokeswoman for Quaker State Funeral Directors Association in Philadelphia, reveals that "nearly 30 black funeral homes have closed." Without black funeral directors managing end-of-life care, African-Americans might turn to other alternatives, possibly the unthinkable-- white funeral homes.
The Quaker State Funeral Directors Association in Philadelphia represents over fifty black funeral home owners, approximately forty limousine chauffeurs, and other support staff. Dr. Hari P Close serves as the 67th National President of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association (NFDMA), a trade organization representing over 5000 members worldwide in Canada, South Africa, and Nigeria. There are, however, only 32 NFDMA black members in the United States.
"Black-owned funeral homes in places like Philadelphia and the United States have been decreasing because of a failure to diversify," says Dr. Close. "For years, black communities have been shifting due to gentrification, and black funeral directors have stubbornly relied on African-Americans for income instead of seeking new clientele. My clientele in my Baltimore funeral home is 28% white," says Dr. Close.
End-of-life rituals among African Americans—that celebrate, not mourn the dead-- derived in response to the segregated South, where slaves buried their family members without ceremony and markers. Black people could not be buried in white cemeteries, nor could white-owned funeral establishments serve black people. But, paradoxically, when a family member of the enslaver died, the enslaved people prepared the body for burial, including planning the repast. When Christianity was introduced to the slaves, slave owners eventually allowed slaves to hold religious services. A slave founded the first funeral home. The A.D. Price Funeral Home in Richmond, VA, was among the first African-American business establishments in the United States.
Black churches, including the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Philly, formed burial societies in the 1900s. They sought contributions from church members to pay for coffins and graves, which is what pre-planning funerals are today. The National Negro Funeral Directors Association, now called the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association (NFDMA), was established in 1904, making the NFDMA the oldest such organization in the United States.
Contrary to national and local trends of black funeral homes closing, Helen G Wait, a black funeral home-owner, has a different view and says that in Philly, "the burial business is improving thanks to gun deaths.
For decades, black funeral homes have benefited from the excessive epidemic violence in black communities in Philadelphia. In 2020, there were more than 2,200 shootings and homicides in the dangerous streets of Philly, more than double the total number of shootings in 2015. The summer is not over, but in 2022, there have been 300 homicides in the city of brotherly love. The majority of gunshot victims are black.
The untimely deaths from gun violence in Philadelphia should translate into mega business for black funeral homes. But that’s not necessarily so. "Some young families are opting in for cremation and are either doing simple memorial services or no services at all," says Lisa Branch Edwards, a funeral director in Philadelphia. "The reasons vary. Sometimes cremations are done to save money, or the family is non-religious. Then some people see funerals as being too morbid," says Lisa.
"Cremations cut into the bottom line of black funeral homes struggling to pay the light bill," says Helen G Waite. " I prefer grieving families stick to tradition when making decisions about last rites. That is because traditional last rites give families an opportunity for closure, given that they can view and spend time with the body. For families strapped for cash, I understand their decision to go with cremation over tradition, but they will get the same top service regardless," reflects Helen.
Helen G Waite has been in the funeral and burial business since her brother-in-law opened the doors in 1956. Her husband succeeded him, who died in 1998. Since then, she has owned and operated the company, which is not typical among today's black funeral home owners in Philadelphia, where there is no succession.
"Black funeral homes generally close down in Philadelphia because the children are not willing to step up to keep the business going," states Lisa Branch Edwards, the Quaker State Funeral Directors Association spokeswoman. Well-established funeral homes in business for decades abruptly close, leaving a need in the communities and churches they once served.
Lisa's family has a history of burying people dating back 94 years, making them one of the oldest funeral homes in Philadelphia. While working on a master's degree in urban studies, Lisa's grandfather became ill, so she stepped in to help her mother, thinking the transition would be temporary. The transition stuck. Lisa attended the American Academy McAllister Institute and graduated in 1993. Her mother, 75 years old, is still actively working in the family business.
And so, with the escalating number of black funeral homes closing in Philly, what is the solution?
The Quaker State Funeral Directors Association addresses the depleting numbers of black funeral homes and directors in Philadelphia by helping with education and training to attract more women to study mortuary science and open their own funeral homes.
Helen G Waite believes more women are choosing to work in the funeral business "I'm seeing women without previous family ties to the funeral business going to mortuary school. These women are young, smart, and savvy. They know the funeral business inside and out. I have personally trained women entering the funeral institution for the first time," says Helen.
Aimee Norman is one of the women that Helen Wait trained in Philadelphia. Aimee, 31 years old, and a native of South Jersey, is a newcomer to the funeral business. No one in her family has previously worked in the death industry. "I graduated from Ashford University in 2014 with a degree in Health Care Administration, but I couldn't find work," says Aimee. "I announced to my mother that I wanted to study mortuary science, which fitted in very well with my disposition to be helpful to people," she says. Aimee then attended Mercer Community College in North Jersey, graduating in 2017 with a degree in funeral services.
Aimee believes pre-planning last rites with black funeral homes would help sustain new and established funeral homes. "I'm surprised black families are not using the pre-payment option. You don't have to be rich to do this. In fact, if you're income is modest, this is the more affordable to go," Aimee emphasizes.
“Diversify!” warns Helen G Wait. She serves all nationalities, including Sheiks, who adhere to traditional Buddhist rituals. "I admire and respect them because they do not stray from tradition, unlike some other nationalities we accommodate."
There was a time in Philadelphia and around the country when finding a funeral home for a deceased loved one was a no-brainer. A deacon or pastor from your local African-American church would steer you to a funeral home where a trusted relationship has been in place for years. Whether poor or rich, black funerals traditionally make everyone equal in death.
Black funeral home directors have a unique, comforting manner of calming weary nerves in a way that white establishments cannot do. African-American funeral homes are a staple of black communities in Philadelphia and black churches around the country. Traditional Christian funeral services and burials are a proud heritage worth preserving and protecting for our children and grandchildren. Black funeral directors work diligently and tirelessly to keep African-American mourning traditions thriving. Their mission to comfort and console is a ministry for black funeral directors. Compassion and empathy in planning funerals is a special calling only black funeral homes can answer.
If you do not belong to a church or need information on pre-planning a funeral and burial for yourself or a family member in Philadelphia, contact Helen G Wait at 215 473 6787, 24/7.
You can research a career in the bereavement industry by calling Lisa Branch Edwards, Chairwoman, Quaker State Funeral Directors Association in Philadelphia, at 215 429 1387.
To join the National Funeral Directors & Mortician Association, contact Dr. Hari P Close at 443 506 6876.