Funeral homes were always creepy places to me, but now that my mother has been associated with one, my perspective is different. In adjusting to this strange, new world, where my mother does not exist any longer as living breathing presence, I see that she is still teaching me new ways to look at things.
When the funeral director guided us downstairs to the room where example caskets were kept, I did not feel the same kind of stomach-churning trepidation that I would have felt just two weeks ago. Odd.
The parlor at this quiet and comfortable family- owned funeral home in Pittsburgh’s famed Hill District neighborhood was decorated with fascinating photo collages of black Pittsburghers in the Hill’s heyday as a “go-to” destination during The Great Migration. The most striking photo collage for me was the one right next to the casket room featuring about a dozen photos of boxers. Joe Louis was there, but there were other boxers I could not identify. As we selected a suitable resting place for my mother, it was easy to imagine my Champion Bates as one of those boxers. Those photo collages, taken by the esteemed Charles “Teenie” Harris and others, were so captivating I wanted to stay and examine each one of them.
Reflecting further, I remembered that the funeral business during the Great Migration provided a dignified profession for black males where they could earn a better than a decent living. Also, funeral directors have had a long history of being involved in activism. Planning parlors, just like the one I visited, were often used as gathering places for planning protests. Clueless law officials would not disturb anyone there. After all, no one wants to be in a funeral home–unless they have to be there.
It gets even better. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson discusses the possibility of some type of underground that funeral directors regularly participated in the transport of “living” protesters out of the South when things got too hot. A perfectly sane journalist named Arrington High was smuggled out of Mississippi by coffin after his commitment in an insane asylum for publishing a pamphlet advocating integration. High’s case is the one that this “network” of funeral directors are willing to discuss. They stay mum on any other escapes. Is it possible that on the very worst day of my life I might have finally found a potential hero for my hairdresser character, Emerald Bledsoe?
Time and research will tell. In the meantime, keep teaching me, Mom. There’s always a lot to learn.