Passed On

African American Mourning Stories, A Memorial

Passed On

a John Hope Franklin Center Book

More about this series

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 56 b&w photos Published: January 2002

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs

Passed On is a portrait of death and dying in twentieth-century African America. Through poignant reflection and thorough investigation of the myths, rituals, economics, and politics of African American mourning and burial practices, Karla FC Holloway finds that ways of dying are just as much a part of black identity as ways of living. Gracefully interweaving interviews, archival research, and analyses of literature, film, and music, Holloway shows how the vulnerability of African Americans to untimely death is inextricably linked to how black culture represents itself and is represented.
With a focus on the “death-care” industry—black funeral homes and morticians, the history of the profession and its practices—Holloway examines all facets of the burial business, from physicians, hospital chaplains, and hospice administrators, to embalming- chemical salesmen, casket makers, and funeral directors, to grieving relatives. She uses narrative, photographs, and images to summon a painful history of lynchings, white rage and riot, medical malpractice and neglect, executions, and neighborhood violence. Specialized caskets sold to African Americans, formal burial photos of infants, and deathbed stories, unveil a glimpse of the graveyards and burial sites of African America, along with burial rituals and funeral ceremonies.
Revealing both unexpected humor and anticipated tragedy, Holloway tells a story of the experiences of black folk in the funeral profession and its clientele. She also reluctantly shares the story of her son and the way his death moved her research from page to person.
In the conclusion, which follows a sermon delivered by Maurice O. Wallace at the funeral for the author’s son, Bem, Holloway strives to commemorate—through observation, ceremony, and the calling of others to remembrance and celebration.


“Punctuated with Holloway’s personal stories, the book is an elegantly written survey for general readers and cultural historians alike.”
Publishers Weekly

“This powerful, moving, and frequently upsetting book is welcome. It speaks to a deep sorrow in the African American zeitgeist. . . . Passed On ventures close to places many folks would rather not go. [Holloway’s] courage and empathy are apparent throughout this path-breaking book.” — Tim Haslett, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire

"Holloway weaves a seamless and engaging narrative from interviews, historical sources and personal testimony, showing continuity in the black experience of death. . . . Her tales are by turns poignant, horrifying and amusing. . . ."
— Josie Appleton, TLS

“Holloway writes a fascinating book. . . . By weaving interviews, historical accounts, and personal reflections, Holloway demonstrates how a combination of racial injustice, violence against blacks, and medical neglect has shaped black people’s expected transition between this world and the afterlife. . . .  [It] may help physicians today understand why some African Americans do not fully trust our present medical system.”
— Brian C. Reed, JAMA

"Karla F.C. Holloway . . . brings all of her professional competencies to Passed On. This well-written history of African American funeral practice encompasses history, narrative, and social science. . . .  One is grateful for the store of information provided by Holloway's scholarship, amazed at our resilience given the sometimes horrific history Holloway presents, and awed by the strength of soul that allowed her to conceive this work and bring it to term even as she mourned her own son. Passed On is a highly recommended read."
— Linda I. Kirkland-Harris, The African American Pulpit

“[An] engaging and, at times, heartbreaking, study of death in African American culture. . . . [Holloway] has managed to elucidate an aspect of African American culture that has far-reaching consequences. By framing her study on the one end with the story of her own adopted son’s death during an attempted prison break, and on the other with the funeral sermon delivered for her son, she demonstrates how cultural and academic criticism can, and should, have a personal effect, both for those who write it and for those who read it. It is a lesson she learned well from W.E.B. Du Bois.”
— Erik Bledsoe, Foreword Reviews

“By interweaving these conversations with visits to the gravesites of prominent black Americans and examples of death and grief as portrayed in literature, music, and the media, [Holloway] provides an in-depth analysis of the unique psychology of death prevalent in African American society. . . . [F]ascinating.”
— Margaret Flanagan, Booklist

“[A] stunning portrait of African American death in the 20th century that includes discussions of the business of funerals and wakes, the ways African Americans die (using a host of statistical analysis), and the place of the black church and funeral ceremonies in African American culture. One of the particularly startling points of Passed On, is Holloway’s inclusion of her son’s death in her prologue and his funeral sermon at the end. Passed On is a valuable book because it is able to articulate distinct social practices, and ultimately show how death pervades not only African American life, but identity.”
Virginia Quarterly Review

“Beginning with the tragic loss of her son, Karla Holloway poignantly examines how race not only affects the meaning of black lives, but their deaths as well.” — Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America

"Karla Holloway writes about a central and little-explored American phenomenon with a wide and patient breadth of knowledge and a startlingly profound personal depth. It feels like a book as durable as a well-shaped stone—as reliable, useful and finally consoling, however hard to bear." — Reynolds Price


Availability: In stock
Price: $25.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Karla FC Holloway is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke University. She is the author of Moorings and Metaphors: Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature and Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character. Karla Holloway is also Associate Faculty Scholar in the Duke Institute for Care at the End of Life.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations




1. “Who’s Got the Body?”: The Business of Burial

2. Mortifications: How We Die

3. The Ends of Days

4. Funeralized: The Remains of the Day

5. The Promise of Hope in a Season of Despair: A Funeral Sermon by Maurice O. Wallace

Epilogue / In Memoriam



Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Finalist, 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction

Winner, 2003 Eugene M. Kayden Press Book Award

Winner, Research and Book Award, College Language Association

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3245-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2860-5
Publicity material