An Utopia Award Finalist, 2023
Celebrating the dead begins with a song. An organist, pianist, or keyboardist—sometimes all three at once—pluck notes into the air. Tambourines rattle, their brass jingles sending shivers down the spines of the congregation. Then a sharp soprano croons, “If you wanna know, where I’m going, where I’m going, soon….” After a few lyrics, a chorus of rich Black voices joins the soprano, and they all belt out, “I’m goin’ up yonder to be with my Lord!”
“Goin’ Up Yonder” is the first song that comes to my mind when I hear of someone’s death in the Black community. Originally written by Walter Hawkins in 1975 for his album Love Alive, his wife Tramaine Hawkins, an award-winning gospel singer, sings my favorite rendition of the song. “Goin’ Up Yonder” is not the dirge you would expect at a funeral. It’s a powerful, energetic song. A send-off to the great beyond for the deceased, and a spiritual intravenous injection of encouragement for mourners.
“Goin’ Up Yonder” is not the only song that has a place at Black funerals. In our community, we could sing “Amazing Grace,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” or “I’ll Fly Away.” Hymns, spirituals, and upbeat gospel tempos all have a place in our bereavement because although we may find ourselves in the swell of grief, our funerals are also a time of jubilance and praise. Instead of dampening our voices, we lift them up, either heavenward or to the world around us.
For us, for Black people in America, we say goodbye to our dead with tears, but mostly with celebration and fellowship through our homegoings and repasts.
In Black American communities, our funeral ceremonies are called homegoings. Quite literally, homegoing means “going home,” and we do so vibrantly.
The term homegoing originated during slavery in the United States. Enslaved Africans believed that being unable to escape enslavement, they would achieve true freedom in death. Their souls would then return to Africa—to home. However, while enslaved, they were unable to mourn their dead sufficiently. White enslavers feared their African traditions and believed large gatherings would allow the enslaved to revolt. Thus, laws mandated that overseers had to be present for funerals, which became restricted under a white gaze.
Black funerary practices changed after the introduction and adoption of Christianity in enslaved populations. Instead of somber, dour experiences, Black people conducted lively funerals, which were still often dependent on an enslaver’s disposition toward the enslaved. They honored those who died because, although their bodies had been shackled, their souls were then free to go home to Heaven, to Glory, or whichever realm was home. How we mourned our dead became an act of spiritual and physical protest against enslavement and cultural erasure that further developed following the American Civil War, which resulted in elaborate homegoing services that persist today.
A homegoing can be distilled to a few key features. Many homegoings take place at a church. Most often it’s one that the deceased attended, a local community church, or one affiliated with the funeral parlor. Homegoings start with musical accompaniment, and attendees sing hymns periodically during the service. Sometimes there’s also a soloist or a choir who sings the songs. There are readings of the obituary, biblical scripture, and the eulogy. For extra elegance, someone may read a literature selection or a note expressing love and condolences. There are also moments for prayer and reflection. And there is a time of remembrance where attendees are welcome to share stories or memories of the departed. The emotions throughout the homegoing are very cyclical. Wailing and weeping end with laughter and rejoicing, which solemnity and peace can quickly replace.
Homegoing services end with a processional. Visitors pass by the casket one last time and offer any condolences to family members sitting in the front pews. Once everyone leaves the building, the casket is then led past the crowd of mourners. There are many variations on how the procession unfolds. A horse and buggy carrying the casket down the street. A hearse followed by a line of mourners driving or walking. A crowd singing and dancing to the gravesite.
The scale of a homegoing is most often correlated to financial means and to the public notoriety of the deceased. In recent years, the most lavish public homegoings were those for legendary rapper DMX and the supreme songstress Aretha Franklin. Both funerals were astronomic feats of jubilance. After DMX, born Earl Simmons, died on April 9, 2021, his funeral procession shut down New York City from Yonkers to Brooklyn as it moved toward the Barclays Center, an indoor arena. A member of the hip-hop collective Ruff Ryders, it was only fitting that a massive monster truck carried DMX’s flaming red casket while hundreds of riders on souped-up motorcycles, dirt bikes, and ATVs followed behind it.
Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, but the effects of her homegoing are still felt today. Franklin had a memorial service at a church days after her death; then her body laid in repose at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan, where thousands of people paid their respects to the late Queen of Soul. Then over ten days later, her homegoing service was held at Detroit’s Greater Grace Temple. About 100 pink Cadillacs—a beatific reference to Franklin’s song “Freeway of Love”—were parked outside the church. The service lasted for over eight hours, and in attendance were former U.S. presidents, civil rights activists, singers, rappers, actors, comedians, and, yes, her family members. Coinciding with the singer’s iconic personality and wishes, the funeral home changed Franklin’s outfit between each public viewing. “She is presented in a way that reflects her life and her legacy,” said Linda Swanson, the executive vice president of Swanson Funeral Home, in an interview with the Detroit Free Press.
All of this can seem like spectacle to an outside viewer, but in truth, this is grandiose love and pageantry—an essential element in homegoings. Pageantry allows mourners to grieve unrestrained. It stands in stark contrast to the leading causes of death for Black Americans: brutality, violence, heart disease, and sickness. It’s an act of giving the dead their metaphorical flowers—acknowledgements and praise. Pageantry is a necessity, especially if the departed were not privileged to receive such unabashed love when they were alive.
Homegoing pageantry looks like mourners arriving at the funeral in luxury vehicles while wearing their best outfits. Hair freshly styled from the salon and fingernails gleaming. When there aren’t suits and dresses, there are T-shirts with photos of the deceased against a background of airbrushed clouds and perhaps a pair of angel wings. Pageantry is hundreds of roses fashioned into a bouquet of concentric hearts proudly displayed next to a casket. Pageantry means coming as you are with the capacity for both grief and revelry.
When I attended my maternal grandfather’s homegoing in 2017, I drove to the cemetery chapel with my parents, great-aunt, and sister in a sleek limousine. A crowd greeted us upon our arrival. There were hairdressers, former coworkers, friends, distant cousins, and folks we’d never seen before, some of whom were kin. Bouquets lined the chapel inside. Ushers in navy suits stood guard in the aisles. It was standing room only, as folks occupied every folding chair and inch of the pews available. It felt as if an entire city were crammed inside to proffer their praises and tears for one man. Everything was as it should be.
In the age of COVID-19, the pageantry of homegoings still exists. In 2021, in lieu of my usual funeral attire—a modest, dark-colored dress, stylish heels, and bangles—I wore sweatpants and a T-shirt as I watched the homegoing for my grandmother, my stepfather’s mother, livestreamed from the other side of the country. Yet, everything was still as it should’ve been. An opulent bouquet adorned my grandmother’s pearl-white casket while other bouquets decorated the sanctuary. Despite the possibility of contagion, people wore masks as they sat close together and sang, clapped, and swayed. The coronavirus couldn’t even keep people from sharing their humorous and occasionally expletive-laden tales about my grandmother.
The times may have changed, but the purpose for homegoings remains the same. When the services start, a pastor will approach the podium, lean down into a microphone, and say some version of “We are gathered here today to celebrate….”
Celebrating the dead ends with food. After the church doors have closed and the deceased has been buried, homegoings conclude with a repast. Most commonly known as a reception and sometimes called a “repass,” depending on where you’re from or how your tongue shapes the word, this is when family and friends commune.
Where the repast is held is just as important as the essential pageantry of the homegoing. It could be held at a loved one’s home, such as their back yard or dining room area. Or it could be held in a community center or a church basement, as was the case for my grandfather’s repast. Most notably, a lack of attention to where the repast is located and how it is performed can be a sign of disrespect to the deceased and their loved ones as well as an indication that the person or persons hosting the repast aren’t knowledgeable of the departed or their customs.
The importance of the repast and who hosts it is best explained in an interaction featured in season one, episode two of Queen Sugar. The aptly named episode “Evergreen” centers on the Bordelon siblings (Nola, Charley, and Ralph Angel) mourning their father’s death and planning his homegoing. Later in the episode, Nola sits in the kitchen with a family friend when they’re interrupted by the sounds of a catering service unloading tables and food on their front lawn. There’s an undercurrent of irritation because the company is white, but the largest prick comes from something greater. Nova charges back inside to confront her estranged sister, Charley, who ordered the catering service.
“What the hell is that out there?” Nova demands.
“It’s for the repast,” Charley says.
“You somethin’ else, Charley,” Nova retorts. “You know that?”
“It’s just some drinks, tables, and linens. I thought it would help.”
“Don’t nobody need no fancy-ass linen.”
“Okay. Look. I’m paying for it, so what’s it matter? Just let the servers handle it. They know what they’re doing.”
The conversation devolves as the anger rises, and Nova offers a very poignant truth: “We don’t honor our father by sitting friends and family outside at fancy tables. We don’t honor our father by having strangers serve those grieving. We serve comfort food to those who need comfort, and we do it with our own hands! That’s how a family does a repass.”
During the repast, families share stories and carry the burdens of loss over hot meals that are prepared and served by those closest to them. It’s where the community builds up those left behind, often struggling in their grief. These acts of love are ingrained in the tradition of Black bereavement. They cannot be superficial or bought. People will notice.
Comfort food rooted in Black Southern traditions is often served at a repast. Whether in large aluminum trays or white casserole dishes with blue cornflowers, there will be endless fried chicken and crawfish, mashed potatoes, collard greens, and potato salad. Mountains of warm buttered rolls and a mouthwatering spread of dessert. And all of this will be (and should be) made from scratch. Only the best is served, because anything less than top-tier is an affront, a minor disrespect to the dead and their family. Paying respect means providing the best.
When the repast ends and the refrigerator bulges with leftover food, the living should feel full—not just with food but also with care. Because loving those standing in the wake of death is how we continue to honor and celebrate our dead.
DW McKinney is a writer and editor based in Nevada. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Los Angeles Review of Books, Ecotone, The Normal School, Hobart Pulp, Barrelhouse, and Hippocampus Magazine, among others. She is a nonfiction editor for Shenandoah and editor-at-large for Raising Mothers. Say hello at dwmckinney.com.