James T. Ryan Jr. 55, a retired funeral director and an authority on the history of Washington, died of emphysema Wednesday at Greater Southeast Community Hospital.

He had served as president of James T. Ryan and Co., Inc., a funeral concern in Southeast Washington until 1970, when he retired because of ill health. The firm, which was founded by his father around the turn of the century, was discontinued when he retired.

Mr. Ryan was born in Washington and graduated from Gonzaga High School. He attended Catholic and Georgetown universities. He was an Army veteran of World War II.

He was a member of the board of directors of the Catholic Historical Society of Washington and contributed many books and articles on the city's history to that organization. He also was an advisor to the Rev. Robert O. McMain, historian of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Mr. Ryan formerly had been active in the St. Pius X Council, Knights of Columbus, and the Washington and the National Funeral Directors Associations.

He is survived by his wife, Mary McGraw Ryan, and two daughters, Mary D. and Rita M. Ryan, all of the home in Camp Springs; four other daughters, Anna C. Stevens, of Forestville, Frances B. Edelen, of Camp Springs, Caren E. Crawford, of Norfolk, and Elysia E. Branson, of Camp Springs, and eight grandchildren.