Black funeral homes are under siege because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Urban COVID-19 hotspots reflect the racial imbalance in the pandemic’s death rate in the United States, where black patients are dying at nearly three times the rate of white people, The Guardian reported.
According to the news outlet, the surge has put black funeral home directors and owners in triage mode, forcing them into social distancing enforcement while processing more bodies than ever and often shouldering the costs for grieving families.
“We are emotionally, mentally, [and] physically beaten down,” Shawn’te Harvell, whose runs his funeral home in Elizabeth, N.J., told the news outlet. “Every funeral home in this area has become a sweatshop.”
In mid-April, Harvell, who typically does 15 funerals a month, had 58 bodies in his care and another 16 awaiting retrieval at nearby hospitals, the news outlet reported.
Funerals took weeks, or as long as a month.
“A lady recently called me and said, ‘Shawn, I’ve been in this house with my mother for a whole day and a half because I can’t find a funeral home that can accommodate me,’” he told the news outlet. “I’m maxed out and I just had to take her.”
“Sometimes I just want to bust out and cry,” he added. “We’re inundated and overwhelmed.”
According to Hari Close, president of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, the nation’s oldest membership organization for black funeral professionals, people have the wrong idea about the finances of the industry.
“People have this perception that the funeral industry is this cash cow,” Close told the news outlet. “That’s just an illusion.”
The fewer than 3,000 black funeral homes still in operation face competition from chains, a growing acceptance among black families of alternatives like direct burial and cremation, and a lack of family willingness to carry on the business, The Guardian reported. NFDMA membership, which stands at 1,400, has steadily decreased since 1997.
“These funeral homes are struggling because a lot of families don’t have insurance, Close said. “We are providing the service in the anticipation of being reimbursed,” but government reimbursement even before the pandemic could take up to two months.
In March, the industry’s critical public health function and fragile infrastructure led the National Funeral Directors Association to seek special relief for the “deathcare profession” and the “poor, underserved and indigent who cannot afford a funeral” in the stimulus bill.
The request to Congress went unheeded.
For Carol Williams, NFDMA’s executive director, the lack of government action is another form of indifference toward African American communities and those who serve them.
“Where is the caring about what happens to our people?” she told the news outlet.
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