Inequality In Death
by Wake Intern Mercedes Marinaro
Death is not the great equalizer.
Racism has had a long and troubling impact on the funeral industry and cemeteries tell stories of injustice in death that rival those of injustice in life. The unearthing of the previously un-recorded Tulsa Race Massacre mass grave site last year is helping Oklahoma acknowledge its difficult history. And in the 1900’s the Black-owned funeral home Mount Auburn, in Maryland, empowered freedmen to care for their deceased loved ones that were otherwise rejected by white funeral homes.
Racism in death persists even today - just last month in Oaklin, Louisiana, Black sheriff’s deputy, Darrell Semien was denied a burial plot on the basis that it was a “whites only cemetery”. We have a long standing tradition of desecrating native burial grounds, recently, in the building of the US-Mexico border wall, and by using these as a trope in horror movies throughout the history of film and television. The funeral of Emmett Till helped illuminate the horrific racist violence in Mississippi and throughout the U.S.
We also have to acknowledge that many white-owned funeral homes aren’t options for African Americans, because they don’t know how to care for a Black body in death (https://www.goodefuneralhome.com/blog-posts/3086/structuralinstitutional-disparities-in-the-funeral-industry ). Furthermore, there is a long, horrifying history of African American bodies being taken and used as medical cadavers without consent (https://www.jstor.org/stable/20853130?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents ).
How does the funeral industry reckon with this violent history? How do we change the narrative that even in death - long considered to be the great equalizer - there is still so much persistent injustice? While funerals can give great dignity to people who are ostracized by society in life, they can also contribute to the systemic racism so deeply ingrained in this country.