A Traditional Southern Black Funeral
For the benefit of those of you who have never had the privilege of participating in a traditional black service, and maybe never will, I offer the following account.
For the first time I had the opportunity to participate on the platform of a very traditional, black Baptist church. I have attended funerals in black churches before but just as a spectator. One of our member’s mother died and because I am a minister in the family's circle of friends I was asked to do the N.T. reading and lead in the opening prayer at her mother’s home church downtown.
To describe this church one has to picture a Deep South low income black neighborhood with old shotgun houses built so close together you could jump from one roof to the next and a church building with iron doors and a chain link fence with barbed wire on the top. Inside there was a very high suspended ceiling with mismatched tiles. Behind the platform was (I'm not kidding) a large home-made painting of Jesus getting baptized. Both John and Jesus were portrayed as black men with 70s style afro hair. I noted that Jesus looked very much like Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies. The chairs on the platform were of the throne type, high backed, red velvet cushions, and ornately carved wood.
There were a few "missionary women" there who were decked out in all white clothes. They look just like nurses in uniform. They even wear the caps. Everyone else was dressed in black. Everyone. The men and the boys all had on suits and the women were dressed sharply with oversized broaches and hats. My wife Carolyn and I were the only white people present in a packed house.
There were four of us on the platform. I managed to avoid sitting in one of the "thrones" by going more to the side of the platform where there was a bench similar to those on the floor. (I just felt funny sitting in that regal looking chair.) The choir assumed their places. It was Tuesday in the middle of the day so it was composed of mostly women and some few men. The organist was a pleasant looking young man who was an extremely talented musician. He was expert at doing that unique black church organ accompaniment thing to everything that was done in the service. For those who have never heard this it is the interpretive skill of the organist to mimic somewhat the cadence and inflection of a speaker. This has the effect of turning a speech into a kind of song made up on the spot. The music was mostly unfamiliar to me until they got into a snappy version of "Rough Side of the Mountain". They really did that one up right and I found my foot tapping. You just can't help it. It's automatic.
I got up the read the scriptures and when I did I found myself joined with a swelling of "amens", "yeeeesss's", "uhmm hummmm's" and "that's right's". I found myself feeling like I was preaching when I was just reading the scriptures. It is easy to get caught up in that and I felt energized by the encouragement. When I began my prayer, the organist did his thing. At first I was distracted by it, but it grew on me quickly as he punctuated my voice tones with celestial riffs and heavenly harmonies from his skilled fingers. For about 5 minutes I was an honorary black minister!
After a host of people shared memories and gave encouragements to the family, the preacher got up and preached. In typical Deep South African-American fashion the delivery started out slow and deliberate but grew bolder and more poetic to reach a climactic plateau in which he was almost singing as well as preaching. The organist followed and sometimes even led him as he delivered his message. It was not a solo performance but definitely a duo. As the speaker got to an especially intense run of speech the other men on the platform stood up and swayed forward and backward.
At a point one of them reached out to touch the speaker on the shoulder as if the say "I'm with you brother!" I kept my seat but felt strange about this not knowing if it might be presumptuous on my part to join them in this exercise of support, me being a visiting pastor, or if I was guilty of appearing aloof by my remaining seated. I consoled myself that some traditions are best kept by those who have them built into their souls from childhood rather than by those for whom it is foreign and awkward.
Finally at the close we greeted the family one more time and then the most orderly "recessional" took place I have ever seen. As if under silent direction, the flowers were all taken out by the deceased's grandchildren. The congregation then moved out of the building in order beginning at the left rear of the auditorium moving first to the front and then along the other side to exit the door in the back. Each row waited respectfully for the previous row to clear before moving out into the isle. Finally all were outside where the hearse, Sheriff Deputies and long line of cars were waiting. I have never seen such a display of order and reverence with no visible signs of direction.
I am glad that I was able to experience this little piece of Southern culture and thought maybe others might enjoy reading the report.