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‘We are the last responders’: Black funeral homes see the heavy toll of covid-19 on their communities

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Even during childhood, the family funeral business had a special place in Spencer Leak Jr.’s life.

“My mom would have my birthday parties at the funeral home, so that my dad would be there,” he recalled, adding that his friends’ parents “would get a little freaked out.” Leak’s dad was the second-generation director of Leak & Sons Funeral Homes in Chicago and often had to stay close to the phone in case a new client called.

Growing up in the funeral business could not have prepared Leak for what he has witnessed since March, when the death toll from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, started to climb. When asked how many funerals for black coronavirus victims he has performed at his funeral homes in three locations, Leak said, “It’s just too many to count.”

In Chicago, black residents are 30 percent of the city’s population but account for 44 percent of the deaths from covid-19, according to city data. White residents account for 19 percent of coronavirus-related deaths.

African Americans are still dying of covid-19 at more than two times the rate of all other groups in the country. Leak & Sons Funeral director, Spencer Leak Jr., has been overwhelmed by the number of deaths in Chicago related to covid-19. (Video: Zoeann Murphy, Rhonda Colvin/The Washington Post)

Leak says his company typically serves 3,000 families annually, nearly all of whom are black, and he expects this year’s numbers will far exceed that. “We have had to purchase extra equipment in order to handle the number of families that we’re serving right now,” he said. For example, he said, the refrigeration room that held 40 sets of remains had to be re-outfitted to hold up to 120 bodies.

He has also purchased extra vans and hearses to accommodate the revolving door of funerals per day.

Black Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population yet represent 24 percent of known coronavirus deaths, and as of June, black covid-19 patients are still dying more than two times the rate of all other groups, according to national data gathered by APM Research Lab. A new Washington Post-Ipsos poll found that black Americans are more than three times as likely as white Americans and almost twice as likely as Hispanic Americans to personally know someone who has died of the coronavirus.

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Black funeral homes historically have played prominent roles in their communities, from offering safe havens and vehicles to aid the 1960s civil rights movement to organizing rides to ferry black voters to polling sites on election days. Now, these businesses are firsthand witnesses to the pandemic’s disproportionate mortality rate among African Americans.

The very existence of black funeral homes is connected to inequality. They are among the remaining physical vestiges of how segregation forced African Americans to establish their own business to provide necessary services to one another.

“Funeral homes in the black community were often used for lots of different things, like people got married in funeral homes and you had fraternal meetings in funeral homes,” said Suzanne Smith, author of “To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death.”

“A lot of things happened in a black funeral home that were 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,” Smith said. “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.”

Benta’s Funeral Home in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood is nearly a century old, and the “notable services” sections on its website reads like a who’s who in black Manhattan history: Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and Alvin Ailey were all prepared for burial by the business.

Funeral director Dorrence Benta said that as the virus began to spread in her city, the phones were ringing constantly, with newly bereaved families calling for her services. “We were extremely busy [in] March and April, unfortunately had to turn away people. It was more than we could absorb,” said Benta.

Antonio Green, a director at Detroit’s James H. Cole Home for Funerals, has had similar conversations. He had to occasionally shut down operations to keep up with demand.

There have been times where we’ve had to tell families, you know, ‘Unfortunately, we just can’t pick up your loved one right now, because we don’t have the capacity,’ ” he said. “We’ve had numerous families who, they understood and they even waited a couple of days and called back, and we were able to pick up that loved one at that time.”

The overwhelming volume many funeral homes experienced made the need for securing personal protective equipment a critical issue in the first months of the pandemic.

Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, a nearly century-old professional organization that represents 1,200 black funeral workers internationally, says members across the country reported a dire need for proper gear to keep up with the demand. She said she has taken it upon herself to locate gear and send it to members but often runs into roadblocks because suppliers are reserving items for medical facilities first. “You know, we are the last responders. You’re also dealing with a virus that is still alive once the body is deceased,” Williams said. Mask donations have been coming in, but she says she still struggles to find protective clothing, shoe covers and body bags.

Despite being more accustomed to death than most, funeral workers are thinking about how this type of unprecedented volume may be affecting staff members.

Benta, in New York, says she is “extremely concerned about the health of my staff. Especially the mental health, just the emotional impact of unfortunately telling someone, ‘Sorry, I can’t accommodate you.’ ”

In Detroit, Green says one of the toughest services for him was that of Skylar Herbert, the 5-year-old daughter of a police officer and a firefighter. She was the first child to die of covid-19 in Michigan. “I’ve got three small kids myself, so that kind of hit hard for me personally,” he said. Green says his funeral home offers grief counseling to clients through the Hospice of Michigan, and he foresees that his staff may have to begin taking part in those support services themselves.

Changes in gathering requirements, which have affected the cultural aspects of black funerals, are also on the minds of black funeral directors.

Socially distant and abbreviated funerals are the antithesis of the black traditional funeral, with elements of the ritual dating back to slavery. A “homegoing,” as a black funeral is often called, “is traditionally many hours long, and many people attend. It’s very celebratory. It’s very emotive, and a lot of people are speaking and testifying and singing together,” says Smith. “The traditions of the homegoing service are so powerful, and in African American culture, is so connected to ideas of freedom. It’s not just about life and death. It’s about something much deeper than that.”

Leak, in Chicago, says the pause on the beloved traditions has been among the hardest parts when working with so many families: “We’re mourning with them because we just can’t serve them the way that we’re used to serving.”

Jason Benta, who runs the family business with his mother, Dorrence, says, “My concern is the loss of legacy,” explaining that families who feel they can’t properly close out their loved ones’ lives are left with additional grief.

But even after all he’s witnessed in the past months in hard-hit New York City, he believes the traditions will, in ways, stay intact. He said he has watched groups of family members who can’t attend a service stand outside on the sidewalk to show their support while the service is underway. Another family’s overflow guests set up a table to sell T-shirts and mugs printed with images of their loved one as a fundraiser to help the family cover the burial costs.

That’s the type of resilience that will keep the traditions alive, said Benta.

“Even if we are suppressed, even if we can’t do it the way we do it, we’ll find a way somehow.”