Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior. In order to have an open and honest conversation about racism in funeral service; Little Miss Funeral and I have joined forces to share our experiences and thoughts. It is very important to both of us that we begin a dialogue that will help to end the ignorance of racism and encourage funeral professionals of all races, nationalities, religions, and cultures to educate themselves enabling us to work together to better serve families and our communities.
We hope that this video will begin an ongoing positive conversation. We would love to hear about your experience with racism in funeral service and encourage you to contact us with any questions that you may have pertaining to breaking barriers. NOTHING WILL CHANGE IF WE STAY SILENT.
Below are 3 of my personal experience with racism in funeral service.
Racism in the Funeral Home & Funeral Service Industry
I have had the honor of working both in the private and cooperate sectors of the funeral service industry. Time spent in both these environments have allowed me to experience funeral service from multiple vantage points. One of the lessor discussed and explored aspects of funeral service is the impact that race plays in the minds and behaviors of both the families and professionals. Sadly, even in death at times we as humans are guilty of allowing our ignorance and perceived differences to outweigh our levels of compassion and respect.
I would be lying to myself and others if I were to say that I have never experienced racism when working with a family or funeral service professionals of different ethnic backgrounds. Though these instances are greatly outnumbered by positive experiences; it would be unfair to allow you to believe that death somehow erases racism. It would also be an injustice to allow you to assume that this racism stems only from people who do not share my African American background and culture.
I am choosing to share these experiences not to bash or belittle anyone person, group or race. Instead I would like to empower families and professionals alike to be more aware, alert and apprehensive when making the choice to make remarks, gestures or take actions that are intended to isolate, segregate or make judgement about another simply because they have a different skin color than your own. It is my hope and prayer that we will all take the opportunity to reflect, learn and grow beyond our ignorance and extremely limiting mindsets and learn to truly celebrate one another’s cultures.
1.“That is For White Folks”
My specialty is alternative burial and funeral. It makes my heart race to learn of new and exciting options that offer non-traditional and more personalized options for memorializing the essence of individuals. Having the option to send cremains or DNA to space, or turn them into art or jewelry, make them apart of the coral reef makes my soul sing. More than exploring these options; I love sharing them with any and every one that is willing to listen. Many times when discussing alternative funeral and burial with African American funeral directors and families I receive the shocking answer of “that is for white folks”. This response never ceases to me by surprise. The fact that there are people of color living in America who are willingly choosing to adopt the mindset that commemorating ones life’s passion and personality is exclusive to one specific demographic comes across as ignorant and self-segregating. This also communicates to me that those making these comments see themselves as undeserving of these options and for whatever reason are limiting themselves to what people of color should and can do.
Perhaps developing an Alternative Mindset Affirmation of “there several choices available to my clients and/or family that will meet our needs and help us express our love in a way that captures the essence of the life being celebrated” will better serve everyone involved.
2.“No I Am Not a White Man”
People have always made assumptions regarding my race and gender because of my name. When spelled incorrectly (without an accent) my name takes on an androgynous nature leading many to pronounce it more masculine as Joel as opposed to its correct spelling and pronunciation of Joél. Many have also assumed that I am a Caucasian male when seeing my name in writing prior to meeting me. One instance in particular that stands out is a removal call from a county medical examiner’s office outside of Atlanta that I responded to when working for a predominately white firm. Upon my arrival the white autopsy technician on duty was reluctant to release the body of the deceased into my custody because he assumed that a white man would be retrieving it. The funeral home had only given him my name which he had written down as Joel. I tried explaining to him that he had my name spelled and was pronouncing my name incorrectly. My attempts to get him to understand that I was indeed an employee of the funeral home fell on death ears. He was not satisfied until I called the funeral home and allowed him to speak with another funeral director confirming my affiliation and authority to take possession of the body. While helping me to load the deceased into the removal van he openly and apologetically stated “I surely was not expecting a black girl”. His actions and remark could have cost him his job and the medical examiner’s office a discrimination lawsuit.
If I had a suggested affirmation and new mindset to share with this ignorant gentleman it would be “I am open to experiences that do not fit into my expectations. I work in harmony with others regardless of our differences”.
3. “They Usually Don’t Have the Money for This, but Since It’s Not a Shooting They Might”
Much of the time in the very beginning of my career was spent in training shadowing more seasoned funeral directors and sales agents many of whom were older white men. Many of the families that we were served were Caucasian but occasionally a Hispanic or African American family would come into the office. In one particular instance we were making the burial arrangements for a 26 year old black man who had been killed in a boating accident. His parents and fiance were understandably devastated and overwhelmed with grief.
We took the family into one of our selection rooms to allow them to pick out a casket for their loved one but they did not see anything that they thought would be appropriate or fitting. We escorted them back into the arrangement conference room and the man training me asked me to come with him into his office where he retrieved a book containing caskets that could be custom designed and ordered. As he removed the book from his desk he “jokingly” stated “they usually don’t have the money for this, but since it’s not a shooting they might”. I immediately confronted him about his remarks. He claimed he was joking. I reported the incident to our supervising manager and explained that I felt as if the remark was extremely racist. Little to nothing happened and to my knowledge there was no consequence.
If I were this particular gentleman I would immediately implement this suggested affirmation- I do not judge others. The value of an individual cannot be measured by my perception or limited to their race, ethnicity, culture or gender.
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Joél Simone Anthony, also known as ‘The Grave Woman,’ is a licensed funeral director and embalmer. She is dedicated to eliminating misconceptions about post-life preparation while stimulating an open, honest and straight forward discussion about death. You can submit your comments, questions and requests to firstname.lastname@example.org or by using our contact page.