Death & burials: The final frontier for segregation

Tradition and religion divide the races when it's time to pass on to the afterlife.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- It is one of the darkest periods in American history that most people believe has changed for the better.

But segregation very much remains a part of one industry that each and every one of us will have to use at some point.

"When the angel of death calls on you, it's your time," said Gerald Joins of Jacksonville.

Joins has lived almost his entire life in the city and holds a special connection to Memorial Cemetery, which is at the corner of Moncrief Road and Edgewood Avenue on the Northside.

"This is a historical place. This is hallowed ground," he said.

Owning a barbershop across the street allows Joins to walk over anytime he wants and visit two of his grandparents. He remembers attending their funerals as a child.

RELATED: 114-year-old funeral home sees change in segregated industry

"My grandmother passed first. Then, my grandfather was buried next to her. They raised me. I looked up to them," he said.

Today, Joins often chuckles because his visits to local cemeteries that are becoming more frequent with age. "I have been attending a lot more funerals because I'm 62 years old."

But in all seriousness, he's old enough to know first-hand why this cemetery in particular became the final resting place for African-Americans like his grandparents.

"I was brought up in a time of segregation. I've seen the racism. If you were in a predominately black neighborhood, than that's where you got buried," Joins said.

'What happened while you were alive applied to when you died'

Memorial Cemetery is one of the cemeteries in Jacksonville that, at one point in history, was founded for and used exclusively by the black community.

"They (members of the white community) didn't want to live with you when you were alive, and they didn't want to spend eternity with you," said Adonnica Toler, a historian with the Ritz Theatre and Museum.

Toler explained to First Coast News that segregation was so severe more than 100 years ago that the white community would only care for its own after death.

"Even if the service was there, if you were not white, you were not given that service," she stated.

So, out of necessity, Toler said the black community was forced to open their own funeral homes and cemeteries to make sure their loved ones received a dignified burial.

"There were just too many people in the Jacksonville African-American community who cold not bury their loved ones at the time of their death. So, unfortunately, what happened while you were alive applied to when you died as well," she explained.

Today, the law strictly prohibits segregation. But, like history, reality tells a different story when it comes to the funeral industry.

Morticians and funeral directors often belong to one of two national organizations that support, educate and lobby on their behalf.

The National Funeral Directors Association was founded to represent white members and wasn't integrated until the early 1960s. Its membership remains largely white.

The National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, Inc. began as a resource for African-American members, and while it's fully integrated, its membership also remains largely black.

"We have a national book that just about all the funeral directors use, and it specifies the list of funeral homes that are actually black," said Reginald McKinney, the owner of McKinney Family Funeral Home in Jacksonville.

'There are not things ... that we need to integrate'

When McKinney was just starting out in the industry, he said he saw the effects of racial segregation first-hand.

"In the funeral home that I interned in, the case load was 100 percent black," he reflected.

Now, McKinney has 15 years of experience as a funeral director, but he can still count the number of white families he's served in the last year on two hands.

"Out of that 75 I serviced last year, I would say eight were actually white families," he said.

The difference today, industry insiders argue, is that many people don't see this racial divide as negatively as they once did.

"There are not things about all of our American culture that we need to integrate. I think that's the beauty of our country. We can be different together," said Dr. JeffriAnne Wilder, an expert on race and diversity at the University of North Florida.

She went on to explain that while segregation at death might have been born out of intolerance and hate, it endures largely because of tradition and religion.

"I think when a family is going through this terrible process, they're going to look to people they know and trust as opposed to someone who might be outside the community or outside their traditional cultural patterns," she said.

A sense of family

Wilder added that a lot of the black community's involvement in the funeral industry is also tied to the church.

"A lot of these funeral homes are in these historical black neighborhoods. It's a sense of community. It's a sense of family," she said.

Among individual families, McKinney pointed out that one funeral home will often serve multiple generations regardless of their race.

"Nine times out of 10, if a grandmother went to that funeral home, if a grandfather went to that funeral home, then the rest of that family will go to that funeral home," he said.

And that's the way Joins sees it staying for now. However, he's not so convinced the color of our skin is what will mater long after we are all gone.

"Things aren't what they used to be," he said.


To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment