This story originally aired in the Oct. 21, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
For many Black communities throughout the country, music is an essential component of end-of-life rituals. When a loved one dies, families often call upon a skilled singer to perform at a funeral as a way to offer comfort and healing. In Charleston, West Virginia 41-year-old Michelle Dyess is one of the go-to singers that people request when it’s time to plan a funeral.
“It’s just like macaroni and cheese,” Michelle said. “You cannot have macaroni without cheese. You cannot have a successful Black funeral without singing.”
Michelle said that when planning a funeral, booking the singer is often top priority.
“I’ve gotten phone calls when somebody has died,” she said. “The morgue has not come and gotten the body yet. Before they’ve made a funeral arrangement, before they know where it’s going to be, what day, what time — they want to know if you can come sing.”
Michelle is my cousin, and she has probably sung at every single funeral that I’ve attended that has been someone related to us. And we have a large family, and Michelle is just our go-to singer. But in the Charleston community, when someone passes away, it is pretty common to see Michelle up at the pulpit singing.
Singing at a funeral makes it all come together. Even though you are grieving, you’re also able to rejoice, and celebrate that person. Michelle said the history in funeral singing is tied to the slave era.
“It’s in our roots, it’s in our blood,” she said. “It became a way to express how they really felt about their loved ones and basically how it should have been in their life. Understanding that there’s a greater glory because now they were ascending to heaven which was something far greater than what they experienced here on Earth. So it became a ritual for us to hold onto and it still is like it today.”
Michelle’s journey to singing at funerals began when someone heard her perform at church.
“Singing at church was when I had first — I don’t know if you would call it an engagement for a funeral — but is when I was first asked, you know, ‘Could you sing at so and so’s funeral?’” Michelle said.
Michelle’s voice is simply angelic. And it is powerful, and it is strong. But at the same time it is very peaceful and relaxing. And the things that she can do with her voice — it is definitely a gift. And that gift, she uses as a power to promote healing for families.
“For me being a singer, it is important to exemplify healing. You have a responsibility to heal and to comfort. To give hope and to give joy,” she said. “And I think that makes a great funeral. That makes you leave with a sense of hope, a sense of dignity, a sense of peace and love. And just to be able to carry on after you’ve experienced something as traumatic as death sometimes.”
Michelle doesn’t just sing a song. She actually ministers to the family. When she’s singing, she will sometimes change the lyrics to the name of the person that passed away. Or she will change them to the name of the family. Or speak to a specific situation that the person who is deceased may have gone through. Not only does she engage the audience, she uses the song to let them know that brighter days are ahead.
“Some people are so effective in your life when they go, it’s like how am I supposed to pick up the pieces to move forward in that moment,” Michelle said. “Music is so powerful that it can actually pick you up and put you where you need to be. And that’s what people want. And at Black funerals, it’s important for us to feel that because of all the infirmities and all of the weight that we’ve carried all these long years, it’s important for us to understand that it won’t always be like this. That somehow and some way, better days are coming.”
Michelle’s three daughters can all sing. But her youngest daughter Kayla has the gift and the passion for people, according to Michelle. At 14, Kayla sometimes accompanies Michelle to funerals to learn the craft of ministering through song.
“I’ve taken my kids a few times with me to minister,” Michelle said. “Kayla is one of my kids who’s getting more interested in singing. So I’m about to be passing it on to her and let them call her so she can go out and do it.”
I think the thing that makes Michelle absolutely amazing at this is that she genuinely does it out of the kindness of her heart. She does not charge families to sing at funerals. She does it because she feels that it is her gift, and that it is her way to help the family move on in their time of grief. She believes that that’s her gift and that’s what she’s supposed to do
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.