- In 20 years, Gregory Burrell, owner of Terry Funeral Home in Philadelphia, has laid over 6,000 people to rest. Almost all of them were Black.
- Since the coronavirus pandemic, he said traditional funerals are taken away from families, especially Black Americans who have been hit hardest during the pandemic.
- “Not being able to have the traditional funeral is not only devastating physically and emotionally, but it’s also frustrating,” Burrell told Insider.
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When Gregory Burrell’s wife passed away almost two years ago, 600 people attended her funeral.
Now, during a pandemic that continues to surge in the US, Burrell’s funeral home requires an employee to stand at the entrance of the funeral hall to allow three people in at once to view their deceased. Once they leave, they cannot return.
Before the pandemic, an average of 150 to 200 people would attend funerals, Burrell told Insider. Now, about 15 people are allowed.
“It’s been difficult having to tell people no, that they can’t have the full, traditional funeral that they want to have,” Burrell said. “Families have not been able to put closure to the death of loved ones.”
“I empathize with these families because I cannot imagine not having a funeral for my wife,” said Burrell. “Just me telling them no … it’s tough emotionally.”
Terry Funeral Home, owned by Burrell, has laid over 6,000 people to rest in Philadelphia over the past 20 years. Almost all of them were Black.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, he said traditional funerals have been taken away from families, especially Black Americans who have been hit hardest during the pandemic.
“Not being able to have the traditional funeral is not only devastating physically and emotionally, but it’s also frustrating,” said Burrell, 60, who has been in the industry since he was eight years old.
Out of the 6,500 yearly Black deaths in Philadelphia, Burrell’s funeral home handles an average of 325 — about 5%. Before the pandemic in the US, his funeral home typically held 25-30 funerals a month. Last April, when wearing face masks was a recommendation — not a requirement — from the CDC, the funeral home held 55.
“People didn’t know what to expect — it was so new,” said Burrell. “I never thought I’d see anything like this.”
But as coronavirus cases continue to rise, the US is projected to cross the half-million threshold by mid-February, the funeral industry, in general, is overwhelmed, overworked, and struggling.
When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the CDC told morticians to implement live stream funerals in order to limit gatherings, Business Insider’s Sarah Al-Arshani reported.
Earlier this month, funeral homes in hot spot areas of Southern California had to turn away families because they’ve run out of space for bodies.
“I’ve been in the funeral industry for 40 years and never in my life did I think that this could happen, that I’d have to tell a family, ‘No, we can’t take your family member,'” Magda Maldonado, owner of Continental Funeral Home in Los Angeles, told the Associated Press.
Jeffrey Rhodes, the owner of Ray Williams Funeral Home in Tampa, had to turn away families for the first time in over 30 years.
“We’re having too many funerals now,” Rhodes told the Tampa Bay Times.
Kaiser Health News reported in September that Black Americans ages 65 to 74 had died of COVID-19 five times as often as whites.
“Being a minority, [it seems] we’re always affected more,” he said FOX 9. “This pandemic has come around and we seem to be really dying at a rate that is different than other races.”
Funerals hold significant traditions for the Black community
In addition to being one of the hardest-hit groups of the pandemic, the Black unemployment rate was at 16.8% back in May.
Black workers were also more likely to work in high-risk roles deemed essential — such as healthcare, public transit, and grocery — that can’t be done from home, putting them at higher risk to contract the disease.
The African American community is also uniquely impacted by the pandemic when it comes to funerals.
For Black Americans, funerals, or homegoings, give communities a chance to pay respect to those who’ve died and celebrate their life, as Atlantic reporter Tiffany Stanley noted in 2016 as funeral homes owned by African Americans saw many closures.
Bodies are typically viewed in an open casket surrounded by floral arrangements as family members are escorted in limousines, sending a message of pride and pageantry to pay homage to traditions.
The rich heritage of homegoings dates back to slavery times. Surrounded by constant death, funeral services became a ritual in slave communities, which formed a foundation of Black church traditions, according to the Atlantic.
Black funeral homes emerged from segregation as African Americans had no choice but to build their own businesses to provide necessary services to one another, the Washington Post reported.
Read more: A Louisiana cemetery apologized after the widow of a Black sheriff’s deputy was denied a burial spot because it was ‘whites only’ graveyard
“A lot of things happened in a black funeral home that was very different than in white funeral homes because they were one of the few places you could go besides the black church to have major gatherings,” author Suzanne Smith told the Post. “The funeral home has this completely powerful political meaning within black communities that most people really didn’t understand unless you are a part of that community.
“They can’t have the Black church ceremony because the churches are closed. At the resting sites, people have to come up one at a time before the body is lowered,” said Burrell. “These families haven’t seen the worst emotionally or mentally yet.”
Funeral homes aren’t just businesses, but also serve as cultural institutions in the Black community. From bearing the bodies of Black men and women who were lynched to being actively engaged in civil rights movements, the Black funeral home has played several roles in African-American history, Russell Wright, president of the Florida Morticians Association, told the Tampa Bay Times.
The influx in COVID deaths has left the funeral industry “overworked and overwhelmed”
More than 2 million people have died from the coronavirus with over 400,000 being from the US. The US remains the world’s worst-affected country leading with confirmed cases and deaths.
“It’s been overwhelming for employees, embalmers, and crematories,” Burrell told Insider.
On January 17, the South Coast Air Quality Management District tweeted they are temporarily lifting air-quality regulations that limit the number of cremations in Los Angeles County to help with the backlog caused by the pandemic.
Stephen Kemp, a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), told Insider there are not enough licensees coming into the industry which can affect staffing.
“To say the funeral industry is overworked and overwhelmed is an understatement,” Kemp told Insider.
As the Biden administration works to get more Americans vaccinated, there is hope that the pandemic will come to an end, allowing families to have traditional funerals like before.
But for Howard Hill, who operates funeral homes throughout Connecticut, streaming funerals online “just isn’t the same.”
“If you know anything about African American services, we like to celebrate,” Hill told the Courant. “From a historical standpoint, the funeral is a very important ritual that keeps the Black community together.”
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