Shawn’te Harvell leaves home before sunrise. As soon as he gets through the door at work, he is checking voicemails in between answering calls that are already coming in. He puts on an N95 mask, foot covers, face shield and gloves, and pulls a Tyvek jumpsuit over his collared shirt and slacks. He unzips a body bag, sprays it down with disinfectant and plugs the orifices. This is the first embalming of at least eight today.

His unrelenting regimen is the new reality for funeral directors, particularly black funeral directors in urban COVID-19 hotspots. The disease has exposed persistent racial inequalities in housing, employment and healthcare – African Americans are dying at nearly three times the rate of white people. As those numbers continue to mount in predominantly black communities, families turn to black funeral homes which have for centuries sustained a rich African American homegoing tradition. But black funeral home owners are in triage mode. The surge in business hasn’t translated into financial security; instead it compounds the stresses brought on by the virus. They are now social distancing enforcers processing more bodies than ever while often shouldering costs for desperate grieving families.

At Harvell’s funeral home in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a largely Hispanic and black working-class suburb, he constantly transitions between embalmer and compassionate community pillar. He gently greets families but also has to remind the 10 people maximum allowed in the home to stay 6 feet apart at all times – even if someone breaks down in tears, no exceptions. He worries about the long-term impact all of this will take on his mental health and that of his colleagues. “We are emotionally, mentally, [and] physically beaten down,” Harvell, 38, said. “Every funeral home in this area has become a sweatshop.”

Edith Churchman’s funeral home in Newark, New Jersey, was founded in 1899 by her great-grandfather James. Hers is one of many homes that black communities have come to rely on. “Funerals in our community, though sad occasions, have always served to strengthen and reinforce the importance of family ties,” said Churchman. “People may not have much during life, but in death they can have something grand.”

Starting soon after the civil war, black funeral home directors were responsible for offering black people the dignity and honoring of heritage that white funeral home directors refused to. Even during the Great Depression, black funeral homes accepted IOUs and let customers barter for their services in lieu of payment because they knew how integral they were to the community. During segregation, when city ambulances refused to enter black neighborhoods, black undertakers provided their hearses instead. Funeral homes were called upon to provide crucial funding for the civil rights movement and their hearses gave leaders like Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Rev Ralph Abernathy safe passage throughout southern towns.

  • People have this perception that the funeral industry is this cash cow. 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 successors willing to carry on the family business. NFDMA membership, which stands at 1,400, has steadily decreased since 1997. Membership in the National Funeral Directors Association, the country’s largest group of trade professionals which is not race-specific, has increased over the past decade and hovers around 20,000.

“These funeral homes are struggling because a lot of families don’t have insurance. We are providing the service in the anticipation of being reimbursed,” Close said, adding that government reimbursement, even before the pandemic, could take up to two months.

Nationally, the median cost of a funeral with burial is just over $7,600; cremation costs about $5,000 in most of the country. Stephen Kemp, a black funeral director in Southfield, Michigan, estimates that 80-90% of his clients rely on a “final expense” insurance policy to cover funeral and burial costs.

In normal times, local or state government burial assistance is the resource of last resort. The most basic provision is indigent burial, often in mass graves like the one on Hart Island in New York. Some states provide funeral homes with set reimbursement amounts to cover funeral and burial costs for families receiving public aid.