- To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death by Suzanne E. Smith
The book is a significant contribution to the academic discourse about American history, the American civil rights movement, and the role that African American funeral homes played in shaping much of that history. It is an important lens for understanding how the ugly and inhumane brutality of the early history of race relations is filled with the horrors or racial violence, and the price that many blacks and whites paid to move the country forward in advancing the modern civil rights movement. It is an important chapter of American history that needs to be documented.
Suzanne Smith is an associate professor of American history who has done a masterful job in her skillful and compelling narrative detailing the critical intersection of the histories of the African American funeral industry and the modern civil rights movement in the United States. Her attention to the contributions of a number of important figures and personalities (e.g., funeral-home owners, funeral directors and embalmers, civil rights leaders, and other historical figures) is unprecedented in its careful and accurate detail. The book documents many of the unsung heroes who were not only caretakers of the dead, but who also made important contributions to civil rights in ways that have never before been so well integrated into a compelling, readable narrative. She is a gifted storyteller and scholar whose mastery of the history’s nuances is praiseworthy. The book is a scholarly and well-researched account of an important slice of the American experience—and our story.
The argument of the book is captured in the lead title—“to serve the living.” Beginning with the preface and continuing consistently throughout, Smith does a masterful job of pulling the reader into the story of how African American funeral directors and funeral homes, while serving as caretakers of the dead, often played a far more important role behind the scenes in serving African American communities. She provides compelling evidence that documents how African American funeral directors often were dedicated, civic-minded members of their local communities who leveraged their resources and influenced the course of modern civil rights in ways that were unanticipated, and often unacknowledged by historians.
While one criticism of the book may be the omission of funeral homes’ success, which depended on satisfying a particularly African American way of viewing, Smith consistently shows how African American funeral homes (i.e., owners, funeral directors, and embalmers) provided a vast array of services to their communities, advanced social advocacy and change, and systematically altered the landscape of the American experience. While delicately managing their own survival, many also challenged Jim Crow and helped the nation realize some of its most noble and humanistic ideals.
While the reader will find many of the historical facts and events familiar, the roles of key players among black funeral directors is given new meaning and significance. For example, the August 1955 lynching of Emmett Till was an event that affected the course of the civil rights movement, left an indelible scar on the African American psyche, and contributed further to the legacy of mistrust of whites. African American funeral directors Chester Miller and A. A. Rayner, who assisted with the funeral of Till’s disfigured body, played an important role in documenting the forensic evidence related to the murder while also providing an important service for a grieving nation that witnessed the indescribable horror of American racial [End Page 489] violence. It is more than coincidental that by December of the same year, Rosa Parks decided to defy Jim Crow, which again galvanized and reset the course for the modern civil rights movement.
Smith deftly avoids the terminology of funeral directing that the general reader might find challenging, and she carefully explains what she could not avoid. Her illustrations are not only useful, but also powerful. For example, the narrative description of grave decorations, though detailed and accurate, is most easily...