Culture Keepers Oral History Project Collecting America’s Voices of Funeral Service in the Midst of COVID
African Americans in death work, death care, and funeral service have been the country’s culture keepers since their presence in the 19th century death trade – which can even be traced further back to the antebellum and colonial periods. For African Americans, peoples ripped from their home country and culture during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, death care can be the last surviving remnants of authentic African cultural traditions. These Africanisms, carryovers of African culture, were made and remade within the new African American experience and fortified the idea of a proper burial, i.e. hidden and protected burial grounds, grave goods atop and buried with the body, ritualistic body washing, funeral procession, and second burial.
With the presence of COVID-19 that disproportionately impacted African Americans, traditional last rites, burial practices and memorials were disrupted, to say the least. “Culture Keepers Oral History Project” documents how African American rituals (in the making) provide channels for resistance, counter untruths and continue to stand as valuable resources and sources of strength for its communities.
Wilbur Brown was so grateful to the “efficient service” of the Isaiah L. Brown and Son Funeral Home that he took out an ad that ran February 24, 1940. In part it reads, “I especially thank the Rev. William H. Dean, D.D. for his inspiring words, and Isaiah L. Brown and Son, funeral directors, for their very efficient service.”
Source: Public Domain, Afro-American newspaper, February 24, 1940.
Picture of Isaiah L. Brown, founder and grandfather of the Joseph H. Brown, Jr. funeral home. Source: Public Domain, Afro-American newspaper, August 18, 1928.
Senior Researcher, Dr. Kami Fletcher, and her team of Research Assistants (James Morgan, III, Sarah Peralta, Pyar Seth, and Cat Dang Ton) ask death workers and death care/funeral service professionals employed within our country’s oldest and newer African American funeral homes during COVID: “How have altered burial, funeral, and commemorative practices affected mourning? And what are the social consequences of these changes, for individuals and for communities?” Key to this questioning is: (1) allowing the death care professionals to take the time to discuss both broadly and especially the shifts in the elaborate, emotive last rites practices common to African American funerals; (2) centering the death care worker as an expert and recording the full micro-history of the COVID-19 impact specific to their experience that reflects demographics and regional specifics; and (3) foregrounding as fact that African American funeral homes are American funeral homes and are the stand-alone source. They are the norm.
Dr. Kami Fletcher conducting an oral history with Mrs. Nadean Paige on October 21, 2022. Mrs. Paige is the Office Manager at Vaughn C. Greene Funeral Home located in Baltimore, MD.
Photo by James Morgan, III
Dr. Kami Fletcher conducting an oral history with Mrs. Ada Brown on October 24, 2022. Mrs. Brown is the Chief Financial Officer at the Joseph H. Brown, Jr. Funeral Home located in Baltimore, MD.
Photo by James Morgan, III
Dr. Fletcher and her team are conducting primary and secondary research on the country’s oldest and newer African American funeral home documenting shifts in practices, roles, rituals. We posit that in order to understand how COVID (re)made rituals, the historical significance of death work and death care workers must be unpacked as well, namely as important community leaders and caretakers of the community.
We intend to interview African American death care workers nation-wide who hold the titles such as: Office Assistants, Apprentices, Morticians, Funeral Directors. If you are interested in taking part in this project, please contact Dr. Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.