COMMENTARY: The Witness of History: Cultural Narratives at the End of Life

Commentary by LaVone V. Hazell
Palliative Care Training and Education, (PTEP) New York, NY

On June 26, 2003, it was a privilege to meet Dr. Holloway during the signing of her book, Passed On , at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem New York and to attend her book presentation on February 27, 2004, at the Last Miles of the Way Home Conference in Atlanta, Georgia .

As I read the powerful trajectories of grief in sections of the text there was a constant tug of war between my intellect, my physical senses, and my spirit as I absorbed the powerful content of the book. The poignant descriptions of “black death and dying” and the mourning process of African Americans made the uniqueness of our sorrow and grief apparent. Experiencing a peripheral as well as a personal view of death, I found approaching this commentary somewhat of a challenge.

I had an epiphany from a personal interface with Dr. Holloway’s descriptions of the funeral traditions, which mirrored my three decades of familiarity with the funeral industry. In neighborhoods across the country far too often funeral directors officiate over the young. The mournful black death among our youth from street violence or racist acts of hatred and violence has become all too familiar.

Dr. Holloway’s references the 1955 brutal murder of Emmett Till, a young African American man taken from his bed in the middle of the night, beaten beyond recognition and then lynched for allegedly whistling at a white woman. She later recounts the horrific occurrence at the 16 th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL in 1963, where four little girls; Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley Carole were killed as they prepared for Sunday service. These references rekindle such deep grief and sorrow that I had to lay the book down for a few moments to reflect. The deaths of these, and so many other black children, are violent memorials of the attempts of those who sought to destroy and weaken us by killing our future generations. Sadly, many more deaths of young and old followed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement.

Oftentimes funeral professionals had to find a delicate balance between the grieving process that they experienced in burying the young and the profound realization that it could be one of their own children. Burying so many of the young beckons the question by the funeral directors...why? Perhaps the answer is, as given by Dr. Holloway in Passed On , when she quotes the words of W.E.B. Du Bois when writing of his son’s dying as “liberation,” that these children were “not dead, not dead, but escaped; not bond, but free.” If I had a dollar for every mother or father who said “now I know where he or she is,” I’d need a decade to count the sum of their grief. What a sad commentary that the last place of solace for many parents is the cemetery.

The funerals of young people can be especially volatile, but the presence of the clergy and family elders seems to maintain a certain measure of calm. To reiterate a segment of Dr. Holloway’s narrative, “the black community nurtured two institutions—churches and funeral homes.” Dr. Sharon Wyatt, of the University of Mississippi ’s

Medical Center, states in her research that: “Our findings show that the integration of religion and spirituality - attending church and praying - may buffer individual exposure to stress and delay the deleterious effects of disease.” From the baptism of our babies

to their last rites at graveside, we have been nurtured by our clergy and put to rest by our morticians.

A child’s funeral should be a gift from the community, with the professional services of the funeral director and clergy and appropriate things from its vendors donated as a way of giving back to the families who have given their faithful support to the community throughout the years.

In a passage of Dr. Holloway’s book she references and discusses the somber, amusing and real life stories that the funeral directors children talk about as she engages them in conversation during a funeral directors convention. An innocent passage, but one that has broad implications as to how the next generation will view and look upon death and dying.

It is unfortunate that children in the black community, regardless of class or social status, have fallen prey to medical care that underserves by reason of their race. From the twentieth to twentieth-first centuries, there are still more questions than answers. Still, one persistent and pervasive question emerges from one decade to another, “Where are we now?”

As a funeral director I particularly appreciated the Dr. Holloway’s descriptions of the funerals and grave sites as they related to public figures. Funerals are for the living; as caretakers of the dead and caregivers for the living, funeral directors are entrusted with the responsibility to assist a family through the crisis of the death ritual. The funeral and the gravesite oftentimes reflect the life of the individual. The juxtaposition of the massive memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. compared to the modest grave site of Malcolm X brought to mind the way Muslims bury their dead. Most funerals are very modest, with the only mandate being that the grave is facing east or toward Mecca .

In the African American community, music and food are pivotal components of the funeral ritual. Music ties the funeral service together, and the meal or repast, which takes place after the burial, most often in a church dining hall, is meant to transition grief, and to honor the dead and their beliefs about the hereafter. African American preachers, stand on faith that things will get better, they offer their parishioners and the hopeless a light of hope. They give comfort when the cloud of black death passes over their followers.

W. Franklyn Richardson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, NY . In his chapter, Holding on to Your Song, (2002, Keeping the Faith Haskins, James and Angelou, Maya ), he urges those members of his congregation not to give into the destructive emotions following the 1990 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and the subsequent, and controversial, trial. Richardson ’s introduction states that the message to follow transcends the moment, giving solace to all facing tribulation, not merely those facing a trial. It is now 2006, and an incident similar to King’s took place in Florida, with the beating and death of a young black man by guards in a boot camp. Exactly—where are we now?

We are indebted to Dr. Holloway’s powerful narrative for “making sure we will never forget” that “black death and dying” and grief are indigenous to a people who also have the power of hope and the strength to endure.