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Refusing to give death the last word

Between the coronavirus and police killings, Black communities are coping with seemingly endless grief. The absence of funerals during the pandemic has been particularly devastating to a culture in which collective mourning plays a vital role.

Flag dancer Tinah Marie Bouldin performed at the memorial service of Kenneth O'Neal Davis Jr., 70, at the Whigham Funeral Home.
Flag dancer Tinah Marie Bouldin performed at the memorial service of Kenneth O'Neal Davis Jr., 70, at the Whigham Funeral Home.Andrew Kelly for The Boston Globe

She drove into the funeral home parking lot and rushed toward the glass door. From the other side of the glass, my mom, peeking over a surgical face mask, greeted her with empathetic eyes. The woman pleaded to see her daughter’s body.

“I’m sorry, I know . . . I’m so sorry,” my mom mouthed silently. The woman exploded. She banged on the glass. Then her rage melted into tears.

Her 20-something daughter was one of the more than 100,000 victims of the novel coronavirus in the United States. More than 20,000 have been Black.

But the death toll only tells one side of the story. The other side is the anger of being unable to see or touch your deceased loved one for the last time. It’s “a different type of grief,” says Carolyn Whigham, my mother’s longtime partner and co-owner of Whigham Funeral Home in Newark, N.J. “This is where you snot. Cry. Stomp. Shout. Cuss. Spit.”

I asked Carolyn and my mom, Terry Whigham, about their experiences as Black undertakers during the coronavirus outbreak. The stories they shared speak to the scandalous nature of the pandemic. We’re not only grieving our dead. We’re grieving the inability to properly grieve.

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This is not our new normal. This is the death of normal.

Terry Whigham in the funeral home where she's president and CEO.
Terry Whigham in the funeral home where she's president and CEO.Andrew Kelly for The Boston Globe

THERE WAS NEVER a dull moment growing up in a Black funeral home. After school, my brother and I played hide-and-seek between and inside caskets. Our chores included rolling old Star-Ledger newspapers used to prop up bodies for wakes. In the summers, when I wasn’t at basketball camp, I passed out peppermints and tissues to family members of the deceased. I knew I didn’t want to make a living burying the dead. But I was spellbound by the way we mourn.

Service after service I witnessed the electricity and elegance of Black grief. The adorned body laid out in an open casket. Elders dressed in their Sunday best tarrying and telling stories of the good ol’ days. Teenagers with a classmate’s face emblazoned on R.I.P. T-shirts. A spirited eulogy followed by a festive repast where soul food is served and family drama unfolds.

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It’s a ritual of death transformed into a “celebration of life.”

For Black communities, who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, bans on funerals have been particularly devastating. I understand why. Not only did I grow up in a Black funeral home, but I’m currently finishing my dissertation on African American mourning.

Burial traditions have long animated African American culture, politics, and resistance. During slavery, insurrectionists like Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner plotted rebellions at slave funerals. A year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mamie Till held an open-casket service for her slain son so “the world could see what they did to my baby.” The publication of the images of Emmett Till’s mutilated body, many historians argue, was the match that sparked the civil rights movement.

Ruthener Davis at the memorial service of her son, Kenneth O'Neal Davis Jr., who died from complications related to COVID-19.
Ruthener Davis at the memorial service of her son, Kenneth O'Neal Davis Jr., who died from complications related to COVID-19.Andrew Kelly for The Boston Globe

Three years ago, white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and slaughtered nine black parishioners. The day after President Barack Obama eulogized pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney, activist Bree Newsome scaled a 30-foot pole at the South Carolina State House and removed the Confederate flag. “I was hoping that somehow they would have the dignity to take the flag down before his casket passed by,” she said in an interview after her arrest.

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What does this have to do with the coronavirus? Black grief does not begin or end at the funeral procession regardless of how someone has died. Our dead live on in the food we eat, the songs we sing, the children we raise, the ballots we cast, the movements we build, and the dreams we struggle to make real. But how can African Americans work through the psychological wage of unfathomable grief without the sound of a Hammond B-3 organ, or tender touch of an auntie, or the smell of cornbread and candied yams, or the sight of our loved one’s beautified body?

“Could your big mama cook? Did you save any of her recipes?” Carolyn asks a family friend whose grandmother, who was known for her peach cobbler, passed away from COVID-19. “No, because it was all in how big mama did the crust,” the granddaughter explained.

“Well, maybe grandma couldn’t write down how to do the crust but did you stand over her shoulder and watch how she kneaded that flour?” Carolyn asks. She wants to make sure that what remains in the wake of loss doesn’t pass away with grandma.

The great poet and activist Amiri Baraka, whom my family funeralized in jazzy splendor, spoke to this in his book “Eulogies”: “I want to help pass on what needs to live on not just in the archive but on the sidewalk of Afro-America itself.”

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How do we keep that tradition alive amid deserted sidewalks and overcrowded morgues? Hell, how do we keep ourselves alive as we witness, once again, Black death go viral?

The memorial service of Kenneth O'Neal Davis Jr., 70, who died from complications related to COVID-19, was live streamed at the Whigham Funeral Home.
The memorial service of Kenneth O'Neal Davis Jr., 70, who died from complications related to COVID-19, was live streamed at the Whigham Funeral Home.Andrew Kelly for The Boston Globe

I HEARD ABOUT the killing of Ahmaud Arbery the day after my friend’s father died of COVID-19. Then I heard about the killing of Breonna Taylor by police officers who burst into the wrong home to look for a suspect who was already in custody in Louisville, Ky. Then 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed and 19-year-old McHale Rose, two Black men killed by Indianapolis police within an eight-hour stretch. Then, before I could finish writing this story, George Floyd, another Black man, was killed by a white police officer, who pinned him to the ground for eight minutes as he pleaded for his deceased mother and yelled “I can’t breathe,” echoing Eric Garner’s last words.

I refuse to watch the videos of the killings of Ahmaud, Dreasjon, or George. I’ve seen the reel too many times. Different city, different cop, different circumstances. Same horror story. But when I heard that a detective in Indianapolis said “it’s going to be a closed casket, homie,” evidently referring to Dreasjon’s funeral, I lost it.

Unfortunately, I’m used to police playing judge, jury, and executioner. But this officer had the audacity to assume the role of an undertaker, too. It’s nauseating.

Black people are not only dying at alarming rates from the virus. We’re still dying from pre-existing conditions of racial injustice. There is no ban on police brutality during this pandemic. We are losing jobs and loved ones. Police are dragging us off buses for not wearing masks, while prison officials are withholding personal protective equipment to our loved ones behind bars.

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Truth is: The pandemic is unprecedented but all too familiar. The endless grief hits close to home. In one year, my family buried my brother, father, and grandmother. My mom visits my brother’s crypt almost every day. Between funerals, she steals away and sits with his remains. For Thanksgiving she brings him pork chops smothered in gravy. His favorite. On the anniversary of his “transition,” as she likes to call it, she gives his shrine a makeover and sings Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gon’ Come.” Chad had an old soul.

A casket in a viewing room dedicated to Sally Alexander, Terry Whigham's mother.
A casket in a viewing room dedicated to Sally Alexander, Terry Whigham's mother.Andrew Kelly for The Boston Globe

I last saw my brother on his 32nd birthday, four days before a heart attack took his last breath away. My memory of his funeral comes in shards. I remember the sound of the drums and the look on my mom’s face and me laughing quietly to myself at the idea that he had won our final game of hide-and-seek.

In the midst of our own grief, my family has provided dignified memorial services to Black people in New Jersey, including Sarah Vaughan, Amiri Baraka, Whitney Houston, and the countless beautiful lives whose names and stories don’t make national headlines. Like the daughter of the woman who banged on the funeral home window. A week later, the woman held her shirt still as my mom, standing a short distance away in personal protective equipment, pinned a brooch that contained a photo of her daughter who’d just been cremated.

The woman wept and said, “It’s the little things that mean so much.”

She’s right. A spirit of care and compassion sits at the heart of our heroic efforts to stay alive, too.

Organist and singer Joshua Nelson performed during a memorial service.
Organist and singer Joshua Nelson performed during a memorial service.Andrew Kelly for The Boston Globe

In the midst of all of the death and violence, Black people continue to fight back, risking our lives to save others. I witnessed hundreds of protesters wearing face masks chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” at the intersection of West 62nd Street and Michigan Road in Indianapolis, where Dreasjon was shot and killed. I thought about the residents of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo., who, before Mike Brown’s blood had dried, planted flowers between teddy bears and empty liquor bottles to commemorate his death. I pictured Bree bringing down the Confederate flag, and the heartaches and heartbeats of Black joggers as they “ran with Ahmaud.” Today, I marvel at the bravery of people across the country protesting George’s killing and resisting patterns of police violence amidst the deadliest pandemic in over a century.

Even Carolyn and my mother — who don’t consider themselves activists — provided a hearse for a funeral procession protest honoring the memory of the 45 inmates who have died from the virus in New Jersey prisons.

My family’s funeral home embodies the incredibly essential work before us all today: burying our dead while refusing to let death have the last word.

Nyle Fort is a minister, activist, and Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. Follow him on Twitter @nylefort.