Under the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 31 March guidelines for Covid-19 emergency medical care, hospitals will receive reimbursements for certain costs, including temporary expansions to their facilities and their Covid-19 PPE expenses. No similar provision was made or guidelines issued for deathcare workers and funeral homes. Although Fema has offered funeral assistance after other emergencies, such as Hurricane Katrina, the Trump administration has yet to issue formal authorization of funeral reimbursement funds for families under this program.
Frustrated with the lack of action, Carol Williams, NFDMA’s executive director, made a desperate appeal to Fema on behalf of her members in April. They were awash in infected corpses, she explained, and needed help finding affordable PPE. She was redirected to Georgia’s emergency management agency, which gave her six phone numbers to try, none of which could help her.
While many funeral homes could qualify for small business loans, some owners like Churchman were simply too busy to apply. “In just the first 10 days of April, we were already at five times the average volume of monthly calls,” Churchman said. Even if she had applied, there’s a good chance she would have been shut out of the program.
For Williams, the lack of government action is another form of indifference toward African American communities and those who serve them. “I don’t know how many of us are in the planning process,” she said. “Where is the caring about what happens to our people?”
It is hard to overestimate the historical importance of funeral homes in the black community. In the Jim Crow South, owners of these businesses were among the true black elites. Funeral homes served as more than just funeral homes. For example, Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King spent their wedding night in a funeral home. Where else were they supposed to go?
Twenty years ago, I spent a year working for the Knoxville News-Sentinel typing up the obituary column. That meant taking a lot of phone calls from the local black funeral homes, who tended to be more demanding than the white funeral homes. If you messed up one detail, such as a typo that was not caught, you really did have to reprint the whole thing for free and these were long obituaries. Since then, these funeral homes have suffered with the rise of cremation. But they are still critically important parts of their communities and like the rest of the federal response to this crisis that, like most disasters, disproportionally affects black people, they are being left to die.