Our Homegoing Rituals and “The Funeral Procession”

by Schuyler Price — art lover, writer and curator of @SheLovesBlackArt

Ellis Wilson, The Funeral Procession

“As far back as I can remember, my life has been surrounded by art. Paintings always filled the walls of our home…my memories of specific artworks are interconnected with some of the most poignant landmark events of my life.” —  Erika Ranee Cosby

In many Black American communities, the tradition of the funeral procession remains intact. Now, instead of walking to the local church, mourners drive in a long, uninterrupted chain of cars. All of the procession drivers flash their headlights to alert other drivers on the road not to cut in.

On the sidewalks, when a funeral procession passes, older Black pedestrians, particularly in the South, frequently stop and remove their hats or bow their heads as signs of respect for the dead.

In terms of procession protocol, the funeral procession is lead by the hearse and is seconded by the “family car.” The family car, typically a black limousine or Lincoln Town Car is designated for immediate family only.

Who rides in the family car is rarely a straightforward matter given the reality of parents, siblings, ex-spouse(s), ex-partner(s), a current partner, entanglements and all the associated children. To be blunt, whoever is paying for the funeral usually gets the final say about who is immediate family member and who is not.

The funeral procession isn’t about the living, its purpose is to honor the dead. The folks who feel that they’ve been slighted bite their tongues and take their places in the funeral procession to the church.

Through an ex, I got to spend a lot of time meditating on Ellis Wilson’s “The Funeral Procession.”

This painting went from obscurity to national recognition when on January 9, 1986 it was featured on the television series, The Cosby Show.

In an episode called, “The Auction,” Claire Huxtable wins the painting at an auction paying $11,000 for it. She says that the painting was made by her “great-uncle Ellis.” According to the storyline, it was sold to pay her grandmother’s medical expenses.

At the end of the episode, her husband, Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable hangs the painting over their mantle, and the painting remained there for the rest of the eight-season series.

In real life, Ellis reportedly never received more than $300 for a painting. He however made a name for himself by exhibiting his work during the Harlem Renaissance period and beyond. The “Funeral Procession” completed in 1950 is owned by Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana and is part of the Aaron Douglas Collection at the Amistad

My ex had received a very good reproduction of “The Funeral Procession” as a gift from his sister. He hung it on the wall at the end of the staircase and forgot about it. I however looked at it endlessly thinking about the traditions, such as the funeral procession that over the decades has endured as the “Black experience” on these shores has evolved and changed.

Our death rituals however continue to connect Blacks in America across regions, dialects, ethnicities, education levels and incomes.

The pageantry and ceremony of our funerals has always been important because it provided dignity to the lives of Black Americans that often wasn’t afforded to them when they were upright and breathing.

The dead person because of his humble job and lack of prestigious accomplishments, in life may have been written off as a nobody, someone not worth mentioning except in passing.

“Did you hear that Joe the janitor died? “That’s so sad.” ‘I think he’d worked here for 30 years.” “Wow, they’ll need to hire someone soon to keep the bathrooms clean.”

The funeral however is a final opportunity for Joe’s community to show up. They know his full name, his family, his challenges and his triumphs. The mourners silently or wrought with pain testify that Joe’s life mattered, he had value and that he was loved.

Like many African diasporaric affairs, the funeral combines the sacred and secular. It’s a gathering of family and friends who come together not only to grieve the transition of their loved one but also to reminisce, eat delicious food, possibly drink some liquor and celebrate life.

The Louisiana funeral parade with its third line is the most exuberant funeral procession but the repast that follows Black funerals are often low-key family reunions, where the Electric Slide and singing may break out any minute.

I was 8 or 9 years old when I went to my first funeral. My great- grandmother “Mama” had died at the age of 98. Her husband had long been dead and all but one of her seven children had migrated from South Carolina to Northern cities. Although Mama died in New York City there was no question that she would be buried in her hometown in South Carolina.

My clan bought out an entire Amtrak car and traveled South to give Mama her homegoing service. We arrived at a whistle stop station in a town outside of Columbia in the dead of night. The next morning, part one of the funeral procession to the church began.

My grandmother and her siblings rode in the family car and the rest of us got into the cars of extended family members and each car followed the other to the little country church.

As we traveled down the narrow, dusty roads people waved and a few men took off their floppy hats that were protecting their heads heads the sun. The news had spread in the hamlet that today a native daughter was being laid to rest.

When we reached the tiny wooden church, we all got out of our cars and solemnly filed in, one family walking behind the other. No words or instructions were needed. We all instinctively knew the drill.

More than twenty years later, I went to another funeral and the scene was eerily similar. This time it was my college friends with our partners, spouses and kids driving from Washington, DC to a small town in Virginia to bury our girlfriend ’s husband. He had died of cancer in the prime of his life leaving her behind and their young daughter.

There had already been a funeral service in large church in Maryland but his roots were in this small Virginia town and it’s where his widowed mother still lived.

Another funeral procession in another small Southern town.

When we reached the church the next morning, we parked our cars in the gravel lot. Again, just as Ellis Wilson ’s painting depicted, silently we walked in a procession into the small church to pay our respects one of our own, a friend, a devoted husband and father.

The twist was our girlfriend was a Brooklyn born, Caribbean-American and so were many of the people who made up the funeral procession. Looking around at the faces, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine that we were walking to a funeral being held at a rural parish church on some island.

Thinking about how we honor our dead I have wondered whether some ancestral memory kicks in. Do these rituals survive because they are ingrained in our DNA or do we keep them alive because we desire to have a way to remember who we’ve been and who we are?

Image:

“Funeral Procession” (Circa 1950). Artist, Ellis Wilson (1899-1977). Oil on Masonite, 30-1/2 x 29-1/4

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