A year or two ago I had the opportunity to attend an African American funeral. Now, this was not some country, small time, funeral. This was the funeral of the wife of an extremely prominent figure. The church was one of those mega churches – you know the kind with concourses, gates, and sections as opposed to rows, pews, and sides of the aisle. But it doesn't matter what size the church is or how prominent the decedent, the traditions are the same.
Now, I say "Funeral", I'll correct myself, it was a "Home Going". And, let me tell you, when they send them home, they go is style. When a loved one passes (they don't die, they pass) then five or six days of funeralizing commences. And the culmination is the final service in the church.
The service started with the procession of the pallbearers (the casket was already in the front of the church) and the flower girls (who carried the floral arrangements and carefully placed them in the front of the church around the casket). The family and the preacher followed.
I had never heard the term "keening", but there is a tremendous amount of keening which is the dramatic expression of sorrow, or weeping and waling. Where as we are so quiet and solemn, there should be no doubt to their loved ones, should they be looking down from above, that they were loved and will be sorely missed. (This is where the "nurses" or "angels" - the church ladies dressed in white- are there to comfort and assist those who fall out due to an excessive amount of emotional output.)
Then there were the hymns, the prayers, the reading of the Word of God, more hymns and prayers. She was truly blessed. Next a young man stood up and started reading all the condolence cards and notes the family had received. Then there was the funeral resolution, (that I later learned was an official church document) and contained a lot of "whereas's" and "therefore's" and "it is resolved's". This was followed by the eulogy. All the while there was a chorus of "Amens", "Praise the Lord's", and "Hallelujah's" coming from those in attendance as the spirit moved everyone taking the loved one home.
Finally, the family was taken up front for a final viewing of the departed. And, after sometime more keening and assistance from the flower girls and the nurses, they were escorted back to their seats for the Benediction and the Recessional.
I was not prepared for the unscripted participation of passion from the pews. As a (former) Episcopalian I am accustomed to our Book of Prayer and order of service leaving little room for veering off the path. I was not prepared for unscripted participation of passion from the pews.
By that time I was exhausted from this true manifestation of emotion. And, I was ridden with guilt thinking of the pitiful "send offs" we had inflicted on our lost loved ones. We may as well dug a hole, read the contents of a cereal box, and buried them under a tree. It is clear our race is ill equipped for the transition.
We were all taught, one doesn't make a fuss or call attention to one self, no matter what. A funeral is a quiet solemn affair. Well a "funeral" may be, but a true honest to God "Home Going" lets all that emotion out and fills that church with tears of joy and grief, with laughter of remembrance and pain of loss, and honors those who have passed on.
I think of us timidly sitting in the pews, fists clinched with monogrammed handkerchiefs, quietly sniffling. Then everyone speaking in hushed tones as we exit the church. We don't have a clue.