Is death the great equalizer? An ambitious 2019 Boston Globe investigative journalism initiative set out to answer this question in the state of Massachusetts and in the course of their research, found, unsurprisingly, that the answer is no. Then, when the Covid pandemic hit, things went from bad to worse.
The data examined for this project revealed multiple layers of inequity, including in mortality rates and morbidity rates, as well as larger socio-political trends contributing to these outcomes. The issue has deservedly earned considerable media attention, but the Boston Globe research is notable in that they compare not just rates of sickness and death, but also quality of life at the end.
Less reported, perhaps, is the unequal fate of our bodies after death, which, of course, is often just as defined by race and class. We’ve written here before about socio-economic inequities in burial. Many American cemeteries were built as separate but (un)equal institutions and residents and local authorities must grapple with how to address the legacy of this built environment in countless communities across the country.
Dr. David Sherman, Associate Professor of English at Brandeis University, contributed a trenchant article on this topic for the online collective The Order of the Good Death, entitled Grave Matters: Segregation and Racism in U.S. Cemeteries. In it he asks, “how to tell a political story about dead bodies. What principle of justice do their passive forms articulate?”
Sherman’s piece takes the reader on a hair-raising tour of episodes of overt racism in death. One incident, in 1971, involved the Escude Funeral Home in Mansura, Louisiana, where Wilbert Oliver was told that he could not hold a funeral service for his mother, Martha Pierre Oliver as she was Black, despite the fact that they had just embalmed her. Instead Mr. Oliver had to bring his mother’s body to the storage building at a nearby church for a service, before burying her. The rejection was made all the more insulting since Mrs. Oliver was a midwife and a friend of the Escude family, having delivered, and even nursed, some of the Escude children.
Sherman’s article details several other incidents throughout the U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century, including a Black soldier, named Billy Henry Terry, Jr., from Birmingham, Alabama who died in battle in Vietnam in 1969, and whose body was shipped home for burial. His mother was denied the right to bury her son at her local cemetery, despite his express wishes, on the basis of his race. When the family sued and won, his body was exhumed and reburied a year later, according to his wishes, with a funeral procession that attracted 1,200 people. The priest described it as “a victory march for Billy for truth and right.”
In another egregious incident Sherman details the 1996 request on behalf of authorities of the Barnett’s Creek Baptist Church in Thomasville, Georgia, to exhume the recently buried remains of a newborn child because the infant, whose father was black, had been buried next to her maternal grandfather in an all-white cemetery. The board of deacons tried to “reverse” the recent burial because, in the words of one Deacon Logan Lewis, “There’s not any mixing of cemeteries anywhere in this area. If someone white asked to be buried in a black cemetery, he’d be a laughing stock.” After a public outcry, the deacons withdrew their request and publicly apologized, leaving the baby’s remains intact.
While these documented incidents have resulted in widespread condemnation and public protest, they likely represent only a fraction of the offenses that routinely occur in communities across the country. Segregated cemeteries dot the landscape of the American south, and though denying burial on the basis of race was ruled unconstitutional in the 1948 Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, in fact, the practice endures informally in many of the roughly 4,000-6,000 cemeteries estimated in the State of Louisiana, most of which are not licensed by the State Cemetery Board and operate without oversight.
Just last month, many around the world were surprised and shocked to read about the incident in Allen Parish, Louisiana, where Black sheriff’s deputy Darrell Semien was denied burial in his local cemetery, due to a legacy whites-only policy. The burial was being negotiated with Semien’s widow, who is white, by the 81 year old cemetery overseer. But when the Semien children stepped from their vehicle, revealing their multi-racial heritage, the overseer reportedly did an about-face and told Mrs. Semien that she could not buy a plot for her husband as it was a whites-only cemetery.
A quick investigation revealed that the Oaklin Springs Cemetery was still operating with the same sales contract, defining “the right of burial of white human beings,” that had been drafted at the cemetery’s founding in the 1950’s, which has since been amended to remove the word “white.”
One wonders just how many other families refrained from purchasing a plot when they encountered this language, or were told, as the Semien family was by the cemetery overseer, who was herself a family member of the President of the Oaklin Springs Cemetery Board, that they were not allowed? Not every grieving family chooses to go public with these experiences and most go unreported.
Dr. Sherman’s article asks us to consider the moral dimension of how we dispatch our dead and proposes that “ideologies of privileged belonging in the U.S. still unfold across corpses, ashes, and burial grounds.” His article also looks at the recent crises of humanity that have played out near the U.S. border, arguing that the number and manner of deaths among migrants who are trying to get to the U.S., in addition to the way their bodies are disposed of (or not), has become among the most pressing human rights issues confronting our society today. He writes, “Rather than older forms of racial segregation, current generations will primarily confront mortuary justice in the terrible fact of unclaimed, indigent bodies in our desert borderlands. Thousands will continue to die in desperate migration, killed from exposure to the sun, thirst, drowning, and violence...In the face of such radical dispossession, in both life and death, what mortuary practices will be morally sufficient?”
Indeed, what would morally sufficient deathcare look like? As we examine the socio-economic disparities in death and dying that have been brought into stark relief during the Covid 19 pandemic, we owe it to our communities to figure this out.
Note: Wake Intern, Mercedes Marinaro, inspired this post with her investigation into injustice in the funeral industry, which you can read here.