Coronavirus claims Black morticians, leaving holes in communities
When the last mourners departed and funeral director Shawn Troy was left among the headstones, he wept alone.
For five decades, the closing words at funerals in this town of 4,400 had been delivered by his father, William Penn Troy Sr. Now the elder Troy was gone, one of many Black morticians claimed by a pandemic that has taken an outsized toll on African Americans.
“I walked over to his grave and I could hear him talking to me,” Shawn Troy said. “And he said, ‘You got it. You can do it.’ ... He passed the baton on to me, so I’ve got to get running.”
He is hardly alone. Since the start of the pandemic, about 130 Black morticians have died from COVID-19, according to the association that represents them.
Deaths of funeral workers are not closely tracked. But the National Funeral Directors Assn., which represents the broader industry, said it has not seen a corresponding rise in COVID-19 deaths among its members.
With the Delta variant surging, pediatricians and others are urging the FDA to move faster on COVID-19 vaccines for young children.
The deaths of Black morticians are particularly notable because of the prominent role they have long played in many communities. Often admired for their success in business, a number — including the elder Troy — have been elected to political office, served as local power brokers, and helped fund civil rights efforts.
At the same time, the “homegoing” services they arrange have frequently served as communal touchstones, drawing mourners together with pageantry, preaching and song.
Black funerals are “more celebration, and that’s no disrespect to my colleagues across the country. We’re more, I should say, intimate,” said Hari P. Close, president of the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Assn. and the operator of a Baltimore funeral home. The association represents Black morticians.
The deaths have come despite concerted efforts by morticians to protect themselves from the virus and limits imposed on the size and scope of burial gatherings to keep it from spreading.
“We were getting bombarded with COVID bodies,” said Dr. Mary Gaffney, who stepped in to run her brother, Jeremiah’s, funeral home in Inwood, N.Y., after he died of COVID-19 in May.
At least 95,000 Black Americans have died of COVID-19, according to an AP analysis of data from the National Center for Health Statistics, perishing at the highest rate of any racial group in the U.S.
In Mississippi, funeral director Luzern “Sonny” Dillon tested positive early this year.
“Just in case I don’t make it out of here, this is what I want you all to do,” he told his wife, Georgia, from a hospital bed in March. He died weeks later at 72.
Family members scrambled to keep the funeral homes, in McComb and Tylertown, running in his absence.
But there was little filling the role that Dillon occupied beyond the mortuary. In his 20s, he had been one of the first Black candidates elected to local political office. Later, he worked with the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. to rename a boulevard for the slain civil rights leader. He pushed to get more Black citizens to vote.
Dillon’s civic role fit a pattern common in many African American communities, where morticians have long been prominent, said Suzanne E. Smith, a professor at George Mason University who wrote a book about the Black funeral business.
The best known include the Ford family of Memphis, Tenn., funeral home operators who sent a father and son to Congress. In Detroit, funeral director Charles Diggs Sr. was a state legislator before his son won a seat in Washington and helped found the Congressional Black Caucus.
In cities throughout the South, funeral directors often supplied the limousines for visiting civil rights leaders when they came to rally supporters.
By late this summer, Georgia Dillon was preparing to turn over the business to her daughter and son-in-law.
“We talk and we cry and we try to build each other up. We tell each other we’ve got to keep his legacy going,” she said.
In New York, Gaffney is trying to do much the same, after years of practicing medicine while her brother ran the funeral home started by their parents.
During the first months of the pandemic, Gaffney said she warned her brother, who had some chronic health issues, to isolate himself.
But his death weeks later, at 65, confronted her with responsibilities well beyond her expertise.
With deaths soaring, she rented a refrigerated trailer to handle the overload. Every other week, Gaffney drove to New York from her home in Charlotte, N.C., to take on the responsibilities her brother had left behind.
“It’s been an emotional journey,” Gaffney said.
South Carolina’s Troy has faced somewhat different challenges, after years of working alongside his father.
The Troys had agreed that Shawn would take over the business during the next few years. But he had expected to do so with his father’s counsel, whose death left a void well beyond the chapel.
The elder Troy, known as Penn, had served as a county commissioner, local school board member and church treasurer. But those were just his official duties.
“If my mother didn’t have enough to feed us, he’d help us out. When you’re talking about Mr. Penn, he was the community,” said Jessica Godbolt, a former neighbor.
When officials voted to close a school because of declining enrollment, Troy pushed to turn it into a science academy that drew more students, said Cynthia Leggette, a longtime friend. Noting that a citizens committee lobbying for school improvements was overwhelmingly white, Troy brought Black parents into the fold.
Last summer, both Troys were hospitalized with COVID-19. The first months after his August death were the hardest.
Penn Troy’s charisma gave life to the business of death. Shawn Troy had mostly worked behind the scenes.
Near sunset recently, Troy paced down a row of headstones, planting tiny flags at an empty plot to mark it for a burial the following morning. Not 50 feet away, shadows stretched across his father’s grave.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” he said. “But I’ll get through it.”
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