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A Collection of African American Funeral Programs, 1958-2005

From the Archives of Mrs. Emma Jones Bowles

"Every man dies, but not every man truly lives...From the movie "Braveheart" 


Collecting funeral programs was not something, Mrs. Emma Jones Bowles set out to do. She collects lots of things (she has tons of gadgets and more than 25 photo albums) that are important to the Douglass Community in rural Haywood County, Tennessee. The funeral programs sort of fell in her lap. Over the years she collected many of them herself as she attended the funerals of her family and friends. After a while when her family and friends would attend without her, they would bring or send them to her because she liked to read and keep them. The box where she kept them kept growing and eventually held more than 1,500 programs—the 770 included here and duplicates. The ones included in this project were gathered over the past 47 years and they offer a unique peek at those that have touched us and left a rich legacy of love and hope. 


The presentation and analysis of these programs is a research project of Dr. Cynthia Bond Hopson, cultural historian and associate professor of journalism at The University of Memphis. She will be assisted in this work by her graduate assistant, Mrs. Vickie Brashear Dabney, and her Computer Assisted Reporting students: Ayanna Adams, Jennifer Allen, Steven Campbell, Holly and Camelia Cole, Bobbie Davis, Angela Fullerton, Robert Humphreys, Shariee Jones, Carmanise London, Christina Morgan, Erika Pryor, Allam Sharifi, Leah Stanley and Tracey White.

Since many of the funerals chronicled here are of people with West Tennessee ties, each presentation and exhibition time (two are planned for 2005) will be coupled with an opportunity for participants to videotape their memories of their deceased loved, ones to preserve this community's history and traditions. Included in these programs are the programs of midwives, business people, church deacons, pastors, community
activists, homemakers, sisters and brothers. The notebooks and videotapes will be archived either at the public library or community center for easy reference. 

How the work will be done

The funeral programs will first be broadly sorted by alphabet and then they will be filed in bundles of 25 to 30 programs per notebook. The theme, From the Cradle to the Grave," comes from a slogan once used by the Rawls Funeral Home (founded in 1933) and an exhibition will be held as part of the activities planned and held in honor of the 100th birthday anniversary of business, community leader and Rawls founder Charles Allen Rawls (1905-1987). The funeral programs will be analyzed using the following categories: (l)Name (formal and nicknames) (2) Date of Birth (3) Date of Death (4) Age (5) Place of birth (6) Place of Death (7) Occupation (8) Marital status (9) Birth Order (10) Number of Siblings (11) Place where the funeral was held (12) Funeral Day (13)
Funeral Time (14) Funeral Home Name (15) Internment Site (16) Number of Children (Courtesy title used) and (17) Poetry used. A master list will be created so that each notebook can be cross-checked to ensure accuracy and to prevent loss of the documents.


A video camera will be set up and those attending the exhibitions may take up to five minutes each to talk about six people. A form will be developed for them to record their name, relationship to the deceased and their contact information. While participants may share whatever they choose, any information deemed libelous by this researcher will be deleted. The tapes will be transcribed and catalogued by alphabet and/or family name. Transcripts will be mailed to family members for their records and a project analysis and summary will be prepared for scholarly journals/publications. Participants will receive no compensation for their reflections.

Why this work is important

Journalism students are taught that the phrase "funeral service" is redundant because a funeral is a service, however, in many African American communities, a funeral is more than just a worship service. It is a celebration and a family gathering and oftentimes the funerals are set four to seven days after the death to allow as many family members to attend as possible. The work schedules and travel time for those wanting to
attend must be factored in when making final arrangements because "family" is fairly broadly interpreted. While in some cultures "family" might mean mother, father, aunts, uncles, and first cousins, in African American families, it most likely refers to second, third, and fourth cousins and those who consider themselves "family" with or without the benefit of bloodline. Many grieving families are willing to wait until the weekend so that
everyone who wants to come and pay their respects can be accommodated.

The funeral program itself is a historical document because it usually includes biographical information such as the person's occupation, birth order, mother's maiden name, fraternal and social affiliations and an order of service. A listing of pallbearers, both honorary and active, may provide some insight into the person's station in life. The funeral home whose professional services have been enlisted for the service and interment site will be included. Poetry written by siblings, spouses, other loved ones, or the ever-popular "Crossing the Bar" by Alfred Lord Tennyson may also be added. The words for this final public testament are lovingly selected and crafted to present an informative and interesting synopsis of what the deceased person has done, who they
have touched and what may be their legacy.

The programs have gotten more sophisticated as the technology has improved. Early ones were typewritten, duplicated on purple ditto masters or stencils, and rarely included a picture. Many of them had hand-drawn praying hands, crosses, or tombstones with magnolia on the covers of plain paper. The language evolved from "Obsequies of the late..." to modern day "Homegoing Celebrations" on colored card stock with multiple pages.  During this period of examination, the use of pictures increased and progressed from grainy snapshots to professional color portraits and collages of family and scenes of significant events in the person's life.

Legacy and heritage are defined as what is left behind after death. Some people live grand lives and make great strides for humankind. Others live quietly and courageously and never shout their greatness from the mountain tops. Both kinds of lives are important to remember and emulate. There are lessons to learn and stories to be told. Writer Gayl Jones puts it this way: "My great-grandmama told my grandmama the part
she lived through that my grandmama didn't live through and my grandmama told my mama what they both lived through and we were supposed to pass it down like that from generation to generation so we'd never forget."1 As communities and the people in them age, finding persons who remember their grandparents or other ancestors becomes more difficult yet the lessons they taught have never been more important to share. As urban sprawl, drugs, and societal decay continue to take their toll on African American families
and their communities, sharing and remembering the sacrifices and heritage of past generations may provide a much needed link and lifeline as we all strive to make the world a better place.


Gayl Jones, Corregidora, 1975

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