Delaying Funerals Until It Is Safe to Gather Has Roots in African American “Secondary Burial” Traditions
The Coronavirus-19 pandemic has changed every aspect of American life, even the ways that we mourn and express our grief. Following the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance that Americans socially distance themselves to save lives, mourning traditions have adapted in ways unfamiliar to most Americans.
These include having online funeral services to allow friends and family to attend these celebrations of life while observing the medical guidelines. Yet, virtual hugs and air kisses can only go so far in providing much-needed affection when the circle of life has been broken, and we are confronted with the aching pain of death. When we have lost family members and loved ones, how can we care for and comfort each other without physically holding on to one another?
Perhaps past African American funeral and mourning customs can offer some guidance and relief during these uncertain times. For several reasons, during the early part of the twentieth century, some African Americans in South Carolina buried their loved ones immediately and had formal funerals during a later time. Colloquially known as pre-sermons, these celebrations of life were held weeks or even months after the burial.  Pre-sermons are only one type of secondary burial. Secondary burials are not unique to Africans nor African Americans and the term is primarily used by anthropologists and archaeologists and refers to a myriad of burial practices spanning many cultures and geographies.
Secondary burials can describe any burial that has multiple phases and that involve a delay of time followed by a secondary process. Archaeologists have found secondary burials in archaeological sites like the burials of Bestansur and prehistoric sites in Iraqi, Kurdistan. These are totally different from the types of secondary burials discussed here.  The secondary burials which some Lowcountry African Americans performed during the 1920s through the mid-twentieth century were practical responses to multiple circumstances that prevented them from having funerals at the time of death. That was a period when many African Americans had migrated from the South to the North. In some cases, family and friends could not afford to travel long distances, and families facing financial hardships were unable to generate funds quickly for an unexpected death. In other instances, the pastors were unable to officiate the funeral services because they were responsible for multiple churches or they were not living on the islands that were isolated from the mainland.
Given the current pandemic that we are facing, delaying celebrations of life until it is safe for many to gather and share their communal mourning may be the safest and best way to honor the deceased and protect the living. With the media reports of people contracting the coronavirus while attending funerals, African American history provides a perspective on how African Americans adapted mourning and burial practices to their challenging reality.
 Elaine Nichols, ed., The Last Miles of the Way: African American Homegoing Traditions, 1890-Present, Columbia, SC: South Carolina State Museum, 1989. Exhibition catalog, 12-40.
 Sissel Schroeder, “Secondary Disposal of the Dead: Cross-Cultural Codes,” World Cultures 12, no. 1(2001):77-93; Sam W. Osteo, “Articulating Burial Process: Primary and Secondary Burials in the British and Middle Eastern Neolithic,” Chronology and Identity: Bronze Age Burials in Northern England, (blog) March 1, 2015.
https://chronologyandidentity.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/articulating-burial-process-primary-and-secondary-burials-in-the-british-and-middle-eastern-neolithic/;Osteo; Osteo, “About Me,” Chronology and Identity, (blog) n.d., https://chronologyandidentity.wordpress.com/about/