While death has always been an inevitable part of life, the culture surrounding death has changed drastically over the last century or-so. The profession of undertaking as we know it today has only existed since the Civil War, and was created as a consequence of that bloody conflict.Before the war, undertakers were advertised alternatively as furniture makers, dealers, and teamsters. As a product of building coffins, these tradesmen were also given the charge of the body, including preparation of the corpse for burial and transportation to the cemetery.
Embalming was unheard of outside of the preservation of medical cadavers, mostly because it was unnecessary. The dead were buried in family plots and churchyards near their homes with no need for further preservation. Things changed as men died daily on the battlefields, far from home. Embalming became a necessity. Without preservation, the bodies would begin to decompose long before they reached their destination. Embalming provided an avenue for families to properly mourn their dead in the uncommon circumstances only present during war.
One of the most successful undertakers during this time was a man out of Nashville by the name of W.B. Cornelius, who employed a black assistant named Prince Greer. Greer was the first recorded embalmer of color in the United States. He had come to the post by accident, joining the fight as the slave of a Confederate Colonel from Texas, who met his untimely end and required Cornelius’s services. Rather than return to Texas after making arrangements for his master, Greer stayed on with Cornelius to learn the techniques of embalming.
Once the Civil War was over, embalming remained an intrinsic part of the burial process. Undertaking now required a higher level of skill, and trade schools and universities began offering mortuary science as a concentration. Along with learning embalming techniques, morticians were also taught how to touch up bodies for viewing and how to counsel grieving families. Undertaking had evolved from a skilled trade to a profession, and with this came economic and social status, making it a promising opportunity for blacks as well as whites.1
Almost at once, these services became segregated.While socially despicable, this was sometimes economical for Black undertakers, who were able to corner the market on African American burial. It also meant that undertaking became one of the few professions open to Blacks at a time when they were largely relegated to unskilled labor. With white undertakers unwilling to care for black bodies in more than a passing way, grieving families turned to their own in the hopes of a dignified homegoing.
Still, the relationship with Black patrons was a complicated one. Many white funeral directors were wealthy enough to have a separate funeral parlor specifically for Black patrons, and even in direct competition with black funeral directors, many flourished. The reasons vary, including political and economic pressure by wealthy whites, but one that was prevalent was the ingrained racism that caused black patrons to believe that whites could do the job better. Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League tried to work against these beliefs by encouraging blacks to keep their money within the black community.2
It should be noted that while advocating for an isolated economy of black business, many of these same funeral directors were also advocating for civil rights reform and desegregation. In a morbid way, funeral directors became movers in the background of the Civil Rights Movement. Indirectly, they provided a safe meeting place and financial resources to activists, but more directly, they became a vital part of the movement through the martyrdom of others.
A few cases stand out. The first of these happened in Monroe, Georgia at a place called Moore’s Ford. Two married couples were murdered by firing squad in the summer of 1946, and like many lynchings, the perpetrators were never brought to justice. In 1968, Dan Young, the black funeral director who had hosted the viewing of the bodies went to the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to ask for help getting justice for the victims since the SCLC was currently working on solving civil rights cases. While local officials had told him to keep the affair quiet, Young had instead photographed the bodies and submitted them to the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper with national circulation. While the investigation stalled, both in 1946 and 1968, Young’s decision to publicize the photos saved the evidence of the gruesome crime, and led to the creation in 1997 of the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee, Inc., to remember the victims.3
Less than a decade later, Mamie Till Bradley refused to let a funeral director touch up her son’s body or close his casket, and photos of Emmett Till’s bloated and deformed corpse were published in JET magazine, with Bradley’s iconic declaration, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Emmett Till became a symbol of what was race violence could do, and why it needed to be stopped.
“Sometimes, it was myself in that coffin. It was my brothers in that coffin. I can’t describe it precisely because it had been so mutilated, so violated. It was him but it was all of us.” – James Baldwin4