Simone Churchman barely had a break from work in her family’s funeral home through the whole month of April. As soon as the young funeral director-in-training would finish a 12-hour shift, she’d get another call from the family of someone who had died.
“I’ve heard numerous stories from my uncle, from my grandfather, from my mother,” said 30-year-old Churchman, who is the fifth generation to lead her family’s funeral home in Newark, New Jersey, serving mostly the Black community. “Never have I heard anything like what we’re experiencing now.”
As COVID-19 has ravaged the United States and killed more than 100,000 people, the impact has been felt hardest in Black communities. In New Jersey, Black people account for nearly 20 percent of COVID-19 deaths — even though they’re only about 11 percent of the population, according to the state’s Department of Health.
In Newark, though, about 50 percent of the population is black, and their high death rate was reflected in the Churchmans’ business: They served 91 families in April alone, nearly two-thirds the number they served in all of last year.
As morgues overflowed, cemeteries and crematories were backlogged and funeral homes were caught in a bottleneck. The Churchmans had to turn people away as families who had been unable to see their sick loved one alive were waiting weeks to be able to bury them. Visitations replaced normal funeral services, with strict limits to the number of attendants in the funeral home’s main chapel.
In the Black community especially, “Funerals serve as such a celebration of life,” Churchman told VICE News, “I feel [the pandemic] has taken away that aspect. I feel that we’re grieving for the families.”