COVIDs Scars Burying Black Morticians

Cards promoting COVID-19 vaccination sit on a table inside Troy's Funeral Home in Mullins, S.C., on Sunday, May 23, 2021. In the summer of 2020, both William Penn Troy Sr. and his son were diagnosed and hospitalized with COVID. The elder Troy never returned home. And two weeks after his father’s burial, Shawn Troy presided over the first funeral without him. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

For Black-owned funeral businesses, the pain of the coronavirus pandemic has been two-pronged: Many funeral workers are mourning their own colleagues who have died from the virus, all while experiencing burnout from having to preside over countless services for their Black patrons and neighbors who have died at disproportionate rates from COVID.

More than 130 Black morticians and funeral directors have died across the country since the start of the pandemic, according to Hari P. Close, president of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association and the operator of a funeral home in Baltimore. The true death toll is unknown because the association does not keep an official tally of deaths among its members. The number of Black funeral staffers who have died from COVID is also unknown but could be in the hundreds, Close said. There are about 3,300 Black licensed morticians and funeral directors in the United States, and about 2,000 Black-owned funeral homes and services.

“In the Black community, funeral directors and morticians are often the pillars of their towns,” Close said. “But beyond that, they’re friends and family. And so our industry has been completely devastated by this pandemic.”

Over the past 18 months, workers at U.S. funeral homes and mortuaries have been on the front lines of a pandemic that has killed more than 675,000 people. The toll has been particularly hard on funeral parlors in Black communities. The death rate for Black Americans with COVID-19 has been almost two times higher than for white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jeffery F. Wakefield Sr., the proprietor of the Poteat-Wakefield Funeral Directors in Albany, Georgia, recalled when his chaplain stepped out of a truck in late August with wobbly legs and insisted he could still preside over a funeral service that afternoon, despite feeling sick.

“His speech was slurred, very weak, and he said, ‘We have to do the service,’” Wakefield said. “I said, ‘You can’t do a service. You need to go to a hospital.’”

After a short drive to a hospital, the man, who was unvaccinated, was told he had COVID-19. Four days later, he died. His family asked that his name not be released.

“He was a dependable, dedicated employee,” Wakefield said. “To lose him was devastating.”

At Ramsey Wallace Funeral Home & Chapel in Sacramento, California, Vanessa Thomas has lost count of the number of times she believes she has come into close contact with an infected person who walks through the front doors of her family-owned business.

Many funeral homes have tried to stay safe throughout the pandemic by requiring that service attendees wear masks or provide a negative COVID test. But for some, the dangers have lingered, despite the precautions.

“A majority of our services recently have been COVID-related,” said Thomas, the general manager of the funeral home. “And it’s not just older people. It’s young people, too.”

It has been draining, she said, to have witnessed so much death among Sacramento’s Black community for months on end. Black residents, who comprise roughly 11% of Sacramento County’s population, account for about 12% of the county’s deaths.

“We just did a funeral for a mother and her son within the last week, and they died nine days apart,” Thomas said. “And we don’t even know if the mother knew her son passed away because she was already in the ICU from COVID.”

Martavius Marcus, operations manager for Poteat-Wakefield Funeral Directors, said about half of the funeral services this year have been tied to the coronavirus.

“There’s definitely been some burnout, some frustration,” Marcus said. “We were seeing people that get to us. We were seeing our friends, our neighbors, our pastors. We were seeing them dying with this virus.”

Close said funeral directors’ mental health has been severely impacted by the pandemic.

“We mourn, we comfort,” he said. “We are in pain, too.”

The New York Times

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