Annette John-Hall: Series is trifling with life's final dignity

Gregory T. Burrell, in the casket room of Terry Funeral Home, is outraged by the "Best Funeral Ever" show.
Gregory T. Burrell, in the casket room of Terry Funeral Home, is outraged by the "Best Funeral Ever" show. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 16, 2013

Amid such breakout hits as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and the most enlightening (in a Neanderthal kind of way) Pete Rose: Hits and Mrs. comes TLC's new reality show, Best Funeral Ever.

Brace yourselves. The accommodating staff at Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas says it will do anything to honor a family's request for a funeral. "You may be in a casket, but it can still be faaan-tas-tic," intones the show's DJ, I mean, narrator, doing his best Barry White impersonation.

That alone should have prepared us. But I don't think anybody was ready, say, for the funeral of Willie McCoy, who sang the Chili's baby back ribs jingle. His services were held in the Party Barn, a cafeteria-like barbecue joint, and featured squealing pigs - as props? honorary pallbearers? - a finger-lickin' good barbecue sauce fountain, and a casket shaped like an oil drum smoker grill.

Let me pause here for a breath of fresh air before diving back into the stench of, no, not funerals, but reality shows in general and those featuring African Americans in particular.

No doubt you've read my rants about the cultural dangers of programs such as Love & Hip Hop, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and the Basketball Wives franchises. Not only do they showcase the worst in human behavior, they also perpetuate the very worst stereotypes about African Americans, all the more fueled by our willingness to watch them.

I meant to ignore Best Funeral Ever, hoping it would die a slow death. That is, until Gregory T. Burrell, owner of Terry Funeral Home in Philadelphia and president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, wrote to say that Best Funeral Ever, and its ridiculous depiction of a dignified industry, is not OK.

Sacred vs. slapstick

"We had to get ahead of this," explains Burrell, whose group is the world's largest and oldest association for African American funeral professionals. "We can't let one person compromise the integrity of the entire industry."

Burrell issued a statement on behalf of the NFDMA voicing its outrage at Best Funeral Ever and "our sincere apology to those persons who are experiencing the loss of a loved one and were subject to the airing of the show."

Black funeral directors are "really, really struggling to maintain a professional image," Burrell says. "There are a lot of people who have worked extremely hard to get to where they are, only to have their images tarnished by a reality show."

Since the dawn of freedom, the funeral business has been a source of thriving entrepreneurship among African Americans in Philadelphia. Discrimination forced blacks to learn how to bury their own. And as far back as the 18th century, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones' Free African Society provided burial services for black and white victims of the yellow fever epidemic.

Burrell purchased Terry Funeral Home from original owner Paul Terry in 2000. In December, Terry will celebrate its 75th anniversary. It has provided services for such local luminaries as Paul Robeson; Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first African American woman to enroll in the University of Pennsylvania School of Law; civil-rights stalwart C. DeLores Tucker; City Councilman Lucien Blackwell; and others.

You can understand why Burrell is incensed about the slapstick nature of Best Funeral Ever. Interestingly enough, John Beckwith, the Dallas funeral director featured on the show, is a member of the NFDMA and a friend of Burrell's. He told Burrell a reality show was in the works. Burrell, however, says he was blindsided by its sheer outrageousness.

Sure, Burrell wants to give his customers the most personalized of service. But family wishes or no, "our responsibility as professionals is to understand how far we're willing to go," he says. "Funerals should be dignified, sacred, and professional."

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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