Following tradition, the legacy of the Rev. Wemyth DeWayne Breckenridge Sr. was acknowledged with the draping of the pastor’s chair. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

An age-old tradition was honored recently as a revered pastor was laid to rest – the unveiling of the mourning drapes, or the mourning drapery.

In the African-American church, upon the death of the senior pastor, his or her chair is draped in black and purple cloth (or just black cloth) in the pulpit. It is the “unfillable chair,” and the covering stays in place, generally, for 30 days. 

In the case of Pastor Wemyth DeWayne Breckenridge, who was eulogized at First Baptist Church-Broad Street Saturday (July 3), two chairs were actually draped in his memory.

On July 2, his chair was covered in mourning drapes at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, where Breckenridge was senior pastor. 

The next day, during his funeral service, the ritual laying of the drapes across a chair in the pulpit was performed. 

The gesture was fitting since Breckenridge got his start in ministry under the leadership of his father, Pastor Oddie Breckenridge, at First Baptist Church-Broad Street, where the funeral was held.

“When a church loses its pastor, that is a tremendously sad time of corporate grieving for the flock,” said Dr. William Young, founder of mental health and “the Black Church” grief counseling and mental health programs.

“Rituals and ceremonies around a death are important in helping the living experience a healthy grieving process. This is especially true for the black church,” Young said.

Young explained that the ritual gives a church family time to grieve together and to experience the draping as one body sharing a common source of sorrow. 

“In the Old Testament, 40 days was the length of time for grieving,” said Young. “Grief is normal, natural and necessary. We, as a people, have repressed feelings of sadness in the time of loss. But to get through the grief process, we must talk about how the death has affected us.

“A local church losing a pastor experiences shared, corporate feelings of grief. Rituals, such as the mourning drapery, is therapeutic and cathartic.”

For Breckenridge, two church families are mourning: 

Mt. Sinai, the church he led, and First Baptist Broad Street, where he was trained in various capacities of service in the church. This was the place where he first accepted a call to the ministry.

Mother Ora Breckenridge sings “Surely” at the legacy celebration for the Rev. Wemyth DeWayne Breckenridge Sr. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Breckenridge was educated in the legacy Memphis City Schools and graduated from Northside High School in 1974.

He enrolled at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he pledged Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. 

Breckenridge was a senior adjuster for State Farm for 30 years, before going to MetLife Insurance. He later went into business with his sons, Frankey (“Butch”) and Matt at Anderson Contractors.

Breckenridge publicly acknowledged a call to preach in 2004. He accepted the pastoral leadership of Mt. Sinai in July 2013.

Breckenridge married Tereasa Fay Clark-Anderson and four children were born to the union: Frankey Jermaine, Christya Marieva, Wemyth DeWayne II and Matthew Ryan.

Breckenridge graduated was a member of the 2019 Leadership Memphis spring class and the Methodist Hospital Clinical Pastoral Excellence Class in that same year.

He tackled every assignment and task with a selfless, generous spirit, for which he was characteristically known.

According to his printed obituary, Breckenridge always reminded his children to “remember who you are and whose you are.”