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Bankole: Pandemic robs blacks of public mourning

Bankole Thompson

Caring for the dead has been an essential part of the black experience in America going back to the early days, when burial societies were formed to plan proper funerals. Homegoing services provide black families, no matter their socioeconomic status, an opportunity not only to grieve publicly but also to feel the protection and warmth of an entire community mourning with them. 

The ceremonies provide a unique platform for blacks to reflect on an array of important historical touchpoints that contradict our democratic experiment, from the history of slavery, when death was viewed at the time as an escape from brutality and forced labor, to the modern-day inequities that African Americans face. 

That centuries-old heritage and practice, a sacred ritual of black life, is now being upended by the pandemic, as African Americans are not allowed to congregate in large numbers to mourn those lost to the coronavirus. 

For example, take iconic Detroit businessman O’Neil D. Swanson, the founder of Swanson Funeral Homes, who recently died at 86 and was known as “the undertaker” in the black community for the number of funerals he had organized over the years, including the grand departures for civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin and Congressman John Conyers Jr.

Because of the pandemic, Swanson cannot currently get the kind of majestic burial he gave to some of the most significant figures in black history. 

As more people are being claimed by the virus, social-distancing rules are making it difficult to gather for services and bid farewell to their loved ones. 

“For most of the black community, funerals and homegoing services are an essential ritual," says Antonio Green, funeral director of James H. Cole Home for Funerals in Detroit. "They represent a tremendous way to honor our loved ones, come together in our collective grief, and take the first public step towards healing. There is no doubt that the inability to hold traditional funerals at this time will have a tremendous impact on our community. Funerals are where we come together to find strength in one another.

"To lessen the impact, we offer the ability to live-stream services in our main chapel at our Northwest location.” 

Solomon Kinloch, the senior pastor of Triumph Church, has been conducting virtual funerals almost every week; sometimes three in a day. For Kinloch, who received his tutelage from New Bethel Baptist Church, where Aretha Franklin belonged, the disruption that COVID-19 is creating is unacceptable. 

Family members and friends mourn the death of Danya Gibson at the end of her funeral service in Warren in September of 2018. During the COVID-19 pandemic, blacks have lost the ability to congregate to say farewell to loved ones, Bankole writes.

“This has been one of the greatest travesty in our community,” Kinloch told me. “The virus has robbed us of our ability to engage in an authentic and genuine fellowship and physical interaction with one another. Our communities always felt that there is therapy in a hug during the loss of loved ones, and now many people are going through this painful process without a physical presence and interaction of not being there with the family and to celebrate life.” 

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which broadcasts at 11 a.m. weekdays on 910AM.