For centuries Bali’s Trunyanese people have left their dead to decompose in the open, the bodies placed in bamboo cages until only the skeletons remain.
It is a ritual they haven’t given up — even as the COVID-19 pandemic upends burial practices worldwide with religious leaders in protective gear, cemetary workers in hazmat suits, and mourners banned or unable to comfort each other because of social-distancing rules.
Across Indonesia funeral workers are now required to wear protective equipment and bodies are laid to rest quickly, all in a bid to prevent the spread of the deadly respiratory disease.
But in Bali local officials claim the novel coronavirus, which has infected at least eight million and killed more than 430,000 globally, has yet to reach the remote north east where the Trunyan live.
“The funeral process remains the same but now we have to wear masks,” explained village head Wayan Arjuna.
Tourists are temporarily banned from visiting for fear of them bringing in the disease, he adds.
“We’re afraid of getting COVID-19,” said Arjuna, but added there was no suggestion of stopping the open-air burial process.
Unlike many in the rest of Hindu-majority Bali, the Trunyanese — who fuse animist beliefs and traditional village customs with their own interpretation of Hinduism — do not bury or cremate their dead.
Instead they let nature take its course as the corpses decay in the open, believing it to be a way to keep a link with the deceased.
“This makes us feel connected to our loved ones,” Arjuna said.
“Like when my grandmother died, I felt like she was close”, he added.
– Skull Island –
It is a short boat ride to their open-air cemetery from tiny Trunyan village, overlooked by volcano Mount Batur and a sprawling Hindu temple carved out of volcanic rock.
There are 11 cages for the corpses — placed close to a fragrant banyan tree that hides the putrid smell of death, locals say.
In one cage, a recently deceased woman could almost have been mistaken for someone sleeping, but her waxy greying complexion revealed the truth.
Nearby, a flesh-less foot poked out of clothing left on the bodies, while a skeletal jaw lay agape in another cage.
“I used to be a little scared working here, but it’s been so long now that I’m used to it,” said veteran guide Wayan Sukarmin, who was spent 20 years showing people the custom on what outsiders have dubbed “Skull Island”.
When AFP visited in February before the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic and travel restrictions were put in place, signs warned visitors to wear appropriate clothing and refrain from using bad language.
Rubber sandals, cigarette packages, toothpaste tubes and pots and pans were scattered around the site, along with baskets filled with coins and crumpled money — all left by mourners for dead relatives to use in the afterlife.
“Locals won’t take anything because it belongs to the dead. That’s our belief,” Sukarmin said.
“I don’t know what the consequences would be if you took something but I believe in karma,” he added.
– Millennia-old custom –
If the cages become full then older corpses are moved to an open ossuary, to make way for new ones.
Then when there is no flesh left, the skulls of the long dead are placed upon a stone altar, until they too crumble back into nature.
Nearby, there is a second cemetery for the unmarried and children, while a third location is for those who died unnatural deaths like murder or passed away from acute illness.
The Bali Aga — or mountain people — who live in these isolated villages, claim to be descendents of the original Balinese and the main temple in Trunyan village dates back to the 10th century according to historical records.
The origin of the custom of open-air burials is subject to debate.
One legend has it that the area’s early inhabitants fought over the prized Banyan tree, so to keep the peace, leaders decided to place the dead there, believing the smell from the corpses would make the spot less attractive.
Another story suggests that the ritual was adopted to avoid angering the rumbling volcano nearby by cremating people.
“There are several versions of the legend so I can’t decide which one is correct,” Arjuna said.
But these open-air burials are now so rooted in the culture that few expect much to change in Trunyan, even as the pandemic ravages the world.
“It’s relatively easier to prevent infections in isolated and faraway places,” said Bali’s virus taskforce chief Dewa Made Indra.
“There aren’t any reported cases in Trunyan. But if that happens then we’ll handle it with special procedures and I think the villagers will understand.”
On a recent Monday in a New Jersey cemetery, social worker Jane Blumenstein held a laptop with the screen facing a gravesite. A funeral was being held over Zoom, for a woman who died of COVID-19. It was a brilliantly sunny day, so a funeral worker held an umbrella over Blumenstein to shield the laptop from any glare, as synagogue members and family members of the deceased sang and said prayers.
The experience was a “surreal” one for Blumenstein, who is a synagogue liaison at Dorot, a social-services organization that works with the elderly in the New York City area. “I felt really privileged that I could be there and be the person who was allowing this to be transmitted.”
The roughly 20-minute ceremony was one of countless funerals that have taken place over Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. As authorities limit the size of gatherings — and hospitals limit visitors in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus — loved ones have been unable to gather for traditional mourning rituals in the aftermath of a death, so it has become the norm for those who die to do so without their families by their sides, able to say goodbye only virtually, if at all.
The rising death toll has overwhelmed funeral homes and cemeteries, further limiting what is possible. Across religions and around the world, end-of-life traditions have been rendered impossible: stay-at-home orders have stopped Jewish people from sitting shiva together; overwhelmed funeral services have meant Islam’s ritual washing of the body has been skipped; Catholic priests may have had to settle for drive-through funerals, in which the coffin is blessed in front of just a few immediate family members.
The effects of COVID-19 will be felt for many years to come, but those who have lost loved ones are feeling those effects immediately — and, for many, their pain has been exacerbated by the inability to say goodbye. The horror of these rushed goodbyes may be looked back on as a defining feature of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as the tragic history of pandemics reveals, it is something that disease has forced human beings to struggle with throughout history.
For example, during a 1713 plague epidemic in Prague, a shortage of burial supplies heightened the pain of rushed burials. The emotional toll is evident in a Yiddish poem written shortly after the outbreak, translated for TIME by Joshua Teplitsky, professor of History at Stony Brook University, who is writing a book about this period. At the sight of the dead being carried away day and night, “all weep and wail!,” the poem says. “Who ever heard of such a thing in all his life?” The poem describes people working around the clock and through the Sabbath to saw planks for coffins and sew shrouds.
In one 1719 book, a rabbi recalls counseling a man who was anxious about burying his plague-stricken father in the local cemetery because of a government requirement to coat the body in a chemical to accelerate decomposition. He asked the rabbi if it would be more respectful to bury his father in a forest far outside of the city. The rabbi told the man to follow the rules, likely thinking that “if the body gets buried in the woods, in a very short time, it will be lost, and if it’s in the cemetery, the rabbi is expecting that when this plague passes, visitors will go pray and pay their respects,” says Teplitsky.
Indeed, Teplitsky found a prayer printed circa 1718-1719 that he believes women may have recited while walking around a cemetery years after the epidemic, asking the dead for forgiveness for the lack of a traditional funeral and burial five years earlier.
Centuries later, during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, Italians were likewise thrust into a world in which funerals had to take place quickly, without ceremonies or religious rites. According to research by Eugenia Tognotti, an expert in public health and quarantine, and a professor of history of medicine and human sciences at the University of Sassari, Italy, many expressed horror at hurried burials in letters to friends and relatives, which are preserved at the Central State Archive in Rome. “The more common lamentations are: ‘Not priests, nor crosses, nor bells’ and ‘one dies like an animal without the consolation of family and friends,’” Tognotti told TIME. Another woman wrote to a relative in Topsfield, Mass., “Here [in Italy] there is a mortal disease named Spanish flu: the sick die in four or more days, a bucket of lime is thrown over the dead bodies, and then four workers take them to the graves like dogs.”
The horror was similar in the U.S., especially in Philadelphia, an epicenter of the pandemic. Columba Voltz was an 8-year-old daughter of a tailor back then, who said that funeral bells tolled all day long as coffins were carried into a local church for a quick blessing and then carried out a few minutes later, according to Catharine Arnold’s Pandemic 1918: Eyewitness Accounts from the Greatest Medical Holocaust in Modern History. “I was very scared and depressed. I thought the world was coming to an end,” Voltz recounted.
Inside one such house, Anna Milani’s parents laid her 2-year-old brother Harry to rest with what they had on hand:
There were no embalmers, so my parents covered Harry with ice. There were no coffins, just boxes painted white. My parents put Harry in a box. My mother wanted him dressed in white — it had to be white. So she dressed him in a little white suit and put him in the box. You’d think he was sleeping. We all said a little prayer. The priest came over and blessed him. I remember my mother putting in a white piece of cloth over his face; then they closed the box. They put Harry in a little wagon, drawn by a horse. Only my father and uncle were allowed to go to the cemetery. When they got there, two soldiers lowered Harry into a hole.
The same concerns that would have limited attendance at the cemetery when Harry Milani was buried reared their heads more recently during the 2014-2016 epidemic of Ebola, a disease that can be spread through contact with the remains of those it kills. More than 300 cases came from one Sierra Leone funeral, and 60% of Guinea cases came from burial practices, according to the World Health Organization. In Liberia, mass cremations ran counter to traditional burial practices that include close contact with bodies. In Sierra Leone, the dead were put in body bags, sprayed with chlorine and buried in a separate cemetery designated for these victims. As traditional burial practices were curbed in an attempt to stop the spread, the dismay caused by this situation, Tognotti notes, was the same feeling experienced by those Italians of the early 20th century who wrote of the pain of the flu pandemic.
Sometimes, however, victims of epidemics who knew the end was near were actually hoping for a departure from the usual norms of burial and mourning: they wanted their deaths to be used to remind authorities to take these crises seriously.
This idea of the political funeral is particularly associated with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s. The activist group ACT UP spread the ashes of victims over the White House lawn, and staged political funerals—open-casket processions, such as the one that brought Mark Lowe Fisher’s body to the Republican National Committee’s NYC headquarters ahead of the 1992 presidential election. “I have decided that when I die I want my fellow AIDS activists to execute my wishes for my political funeral,” Fisher wrote, in a statement entitled Bury Me Furiously. “We are not just spiraling statistics; we are people who have lives, who have purpose, who have lovers, friends and families. And we are dying of a disease maintained by a degree of criminal neglect so enormous that it amounts to genocide.”
The inability to give loved ones proper send-offs is often a hidden cost of these pandemics, Tognotti says, and should not be ignored by officials. Even with modern knowledge about disease transmission, awareness of the reasons for public-health guidance doesn’t lessen the desire to participate in rituals. “The emotional strain of not being able to dispose of the dead promptly, and in accordance with cultural and religious customs, has the power to create social distress and unrest and needs to be considered in contemporary pandemic preparedness planning,” she says.
In this pandemic, a new openness about talking about mental health issues could help. For example, New York state launched a hotline so residents can talk to a therapist for free, and some sites host virtual sessions to discuss grief. Mourners can opt for live-streaming and video conferencing and include more people virtually than before.
For others, these virtual gatherings and brief blessings at the cemetery are placeholders. In March, after Alfredo Visioli, 83, was buried in a cemetery near Cremona in northern Italy, with no relatives allowed to attend and a brief blessing from a priest, his grand-daughter Marta Manfredi told Reuters that, “When all this is over, we will give him a real funeral.”
It starts from the moment you pass. Your organs begin to shut down. Hair stops growing, skin recedes. Some parts of the body take longer than others, but eventually, as with all things, it all starts to break down.
If you opt for a traditional burial, your remains will spend years nestled within a casket underground, progressing into a deeper state of decomposition. If you opt for a traditional flame-based cremation, you eliminate any further decomposition by burning it to a halt.
But there’s also another alternative — one designed to accelerate the decomposition process through the medium of water. It’s known as alkaline hydrolysis, or water cremation. One part spa, one part chemical blend, a few hours of a swirling soak, and your earthly remains are no longer.
“It’s basic chemistry,” explains Anas Ghadouani, leader of the research group Aquatic Ecology and Ecosystem Studies. “You have organic matter and you add a base to it and it just decomposes. You can write the equation to it. It’s very simple.”
Despite this, alkaline hydrolysis remains one of the most divisive and misunderstood practices in contemporary funeral technology.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a form of cremation that uses water and chemicals to break down the human body to its bare minimum. Salts, amino acids, peptides. Like flame-based cremation, it produces ash that can be taken home. Unlike flame-based cremation, it’s illegal for use on human bodies in almost 30 states in America.
The concept itself isn’t new. Amos Herbert Hobson of Middlesex, England, patented the first alkaline hydrolysis machine all the way back in 1888. He used it to dispose of animal carcasses.
In the century and a half since, the technology has evolved, and it has the potential to shake up the death industry.
The process is straightforward. Bodies are placed in a machine containing a chemical mixture of water and alkali. The mixture is then heated and cycled. Over the course of hours, the body is accelerated through its natural decomposition process, resulting in a residual liquid made up of amino acids, peptides, salt, soap and bones — the last of which is broken down into white ash.
Joseph Wilson, now founder and CEO of leading alkaline hydrolysis manufacturer Bio-Response Solutions, helped design the first commercial-use human alkaline hydrolysis unit in 2005.
“I was stunned that there was a way to dispose of tissue without burning,” said Wilson. “You don’t have any external pumps or tanks or chemicals. It’s all there at the machine.”
There are undeniable benefits to this process. In 2011, a study from the University of Groningen compared conventional burial, cremation, alkaline hydrolysis and cryomation and found that alkaline hydrolysis had the lowest overall environmental footprint.
Yet despite the fact that flame-based cremation subjects the remains to intense fire, alkaline hydrolysis is seen as the more graphic option for potential funerals, when both are just as valid. Legal roadblocks and cultural concerns have plagued water cremation since its inception.
And there’s a simple reason for that: Alkaline hydrolysis has a reputation shaped by years of misrepresentation. Nobody wants to feel like they’re disrespecting their loved ones.
Media, morals and the mafia
Most people’s first experience of alkaline hydrolysis is through popular culture.
In the second episode of Breaking Bad, audiences sees drug dealer Jesse Pinkman dissolve a dead body in his apartment’s bathtub using hydrofluoric acid he’d sourced from his high school’s chemical stores. He returns the next day only to find the acid had eaten through the bathtub itself and floorboards beneath, before finally falling through to the floor below.
Despite the effective cinematics, Breaking Bad is far from realistic. Hydrofluoric acid, while highly corrosive, doesn’t have the capacity to completely liquefy remains overnight — it’s at the wrong end of the pH scale. It certainly doesn’t have the capacity to eat through a bath and the floor.
Whether it’s a question of gulping down Soylent Green or shunting bodies into acid barrels, television and film haven’t been kind to the practice of alkaline hydrolysis.
Outside of television, urban legends have tarred alkaline hydrolysis with further negativity. In 2011, researchers had to debunk claims the Sicilian mafia disposed of human remains in a process called lupara bianca, or white shotgun. Just like in Breaking Bad, the mafia supposedly used acid — an entirely different, cruder chemical process.
Mafia urban legends and shows like Breaking Bad create a sense of violence surrounding water cremation that simply doesn’t hold up. Water cremation, at its core, is no more than the acceleration of a natural process.
The reality: As with almost all aspects of the death industry, there is a level of respect and dignity. You don’t see what happens in the retort of a flame-based cremator, but you won’t see what happens inside an alkaline hydrolysis machine either.
What remains to be dealt with, however, is what comes out the other side. Ashes are one thing — you can pop them on the mantle in a decorative urn, sprinkle them at sea or even have them launched into space — but what about the residual liquid?
One of the biggest roadblocks to the acceptance of alkaline hydrolysis technology is the issue of wastewater. Because of its association with death, the liquid is perceived as too unsanitary to be processed normally. Say it goes through the same recycling plants that supply residential areas, the idea of drinking the essence of a dead body sounds abhorrent. It’s hard enough swallowing the idea of recycled sewage water. Remains? Inconceivable.
But technology already exists to tackle almost any kind of wastewater.
Sewage water is filtered for reuse in municipal treatment plants. Organic material is broken down in anaerobic digesters, which convert the material into methane or “biogas.” Specially designed ultrafiltration systems can even tackle aqueous nuclear waste.
“Any liquid waste that we have, we can deal with,” says Ghadouani.
Yet in Australia, residual liquid from water cremation isn’t permitted to be treated via the municipal water treatment facilities or digesters. More worryingly, there’s a disconnect here — and it’s one that, for the most part, is behind the closed doors of the funeral industry.
“One of the most common things the public doesn’t know,” says leading US thanatologist and death educator Cole Imperi, “is that when someone is embalmed, all the blood that comes out of your body, where does that go? It goes down the drain.”
In fact, almost all the human waste that comes from hospitals and funeral homes as a result of the embalming process is permitted to be processed through these official channels.
“So if you’re allowing byproducts from funeral homes to go into the municipal water system for treatment, why are you discriminating against one particular disposition method?” Imperi asks. “It’s an interesting kind of cognitive dissonance.”
When Raj Singh’s 70-year-old mother died from the coronavirus in India’s capital, he took comfort in the prospect of a proper cremation, the funeral rite that Hindus believe releases the soul from the cycle of rebirth.
But instead of chanting sacred Vedic hymns and sprinkling holy water from the Ganges River, all Singh could do was place his mother’s wrapped corpse on a wooden pyre and along with a handful of relatives watch it burn.
“I never thought I would watch my mother go like this,” he said.
Like elsewhere in the world, the novel coronavirus has made honoring the dead in New Delhi a hurried affair, largely devoid of the rituals that give it meaning for mourners. Cemeteries and crematoriums are overwhelmed, so there isn’t much time for ceremony, and even if there were, the government limits the number of people allowed at funerals and those in attendance must maintain distance and wear masks.
“The whole grieving process has been interrupted,” said Pappu, who goes by only one name and lights the funeral pyres at Nigambodh Ghat, New Delhi’s biggest crematorium.
New Delhi has officially reported close to 1,100 deaths from the coronavirus, but cemeteries and crematoriums in the city say the actual number is several hundred higher. Hospital morgues are beyond capacity, and with summer temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Farenheit) some bodies are being kept on thick ice slabs.
“In the beginning, I used to carry only one body. Now, helpers at the morgue will stack as many bodies as they can fit in my van,” said Bhijendra Dhigya, who drives a hearse from one New Delhi hospital to the crematorium.
The spike in deaths in New Delhi comes amid a broader virus surge throughout India, where authorities are reporting some 10,000 new infections each day and more than 300 deaths. Nevertheless, India lifted most of the remaining restrictions from its 10-week lockdown on June 8, the same day it recorded what at the time was its highest single-day death toll from the virus.
On Friday, India’s nationwide caseload overtook Britain to became the fourth highest in the world with 297,535 confirmed cases and 8,498 deaths, according to the Health Ministry. But that is just the known cases. Like elsewhere in the world, the actual number of infections is thought to be far higher for a number of reasons including limited testing.
New Delhi’s health centers are under immense strain and the state government’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, said this week that a state health department model has projected a worst case scenario in which the number of infections in the capital — already at nearly 35,000 — could reach 550,000 by the end of July.
In the worst case scenario, Sisodia said New Delhi would need 80,000 hospital beds, far more than the roughly 9,000 hospital beds currently available for virus patients. The state government is considering taking hotels and sports stadiums to use as field hospitals.
The capital’s Nigambodh Ghat crematorium has handled more than 500 coronavirus cremations since the beginning of the outbreak. When some of its gas-fueled incinerators broke down, there was no one willing to repair them, so the staff reverted to traditional wooden pyres.
Even with working hours extended, there has been no time for individual cremation ceremonies and exhaustive rituals with incense, garlands of marigold and chanting.
The crematorium is now largely quiet except for the distinct snap and crackle of the burning wood and the din of sirens from ambulances bringing more bodies.
The virus has upended Muslim burial rituals in the city as well.
Islamic burials normally involve a simple ceremony. Before the body is laid to rest, it is washed. Those attending the funeral are allowed to have a look at the face of the dead and a prayer is performed, followed by a sermon from a cleric. Then close family members help place the body in a grave.
Now bodies arrive at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery in hearses manned by crews in hazmat suits. Bodies aren’t washed and mourners can’t view them. There are no sermons.
The cemetery has already seen more than 200 burials of COVID-19 victims and with bodies steadily arriving, the grounds are filling fast.
On a recent day at the burial of a 22-year-old man who died of the virus, a backhoe dug a grave as four relatives said a speedy prayer. The body was then lowered into the grave by ropes.
Mohammad Shameem, a gravedigger who now oversees the burials, shook his head in disapproval as the backhoe quickly carved out another grave.
Editor’s note: Every religion has its death rites, communal practices developed over millennia to honor the dead and console the living. Some of these rituals are unique to one faith, but more are shared – a reminder there’s a common path toward healing. Yet COVID-19 is forcing many people to grieve in isolation. We asked three faith leaders and religion scholars for their counsel on mourning during the pandemic.
Honoring the dead and comforting mourners
Rabbi David A. Schuck
Jewish mourning rituals follow the principles of “k’vod hamet,” honoring the deceased, and “nichum aveilim,” comforting mourners.
K’vod hamet includes sitting and praying with the body, ritual washing and burial within two days of death. At a Jewish funeral, family and friends take turns filling the grave with earth – a final act of love. Focus then turns to the family, who return to their home to observe shiva, seven days of intense mourning in which the community provides meals, prayer and comfort.
With these communal rituals inaccessible during the coronavirus pandemic, the trauma of losing loved ones is profound. For synagogues in the center of this pandemic, there’s collective trauma, too. I live in New York, and each week my congregants receive several death notices of longtime friends, but have no avenue to grieve together.
I’m broadcasting funerals online and coordinating shiva visits through Zoom, but technology will never approximate the comfort of a home full of people. During shiva, our community holds us in our grief until we discover ways to move forward alone again.
The first funeral I officiated during the coronavirus pandemic was for a woman who would have wanted blaring trumpets to announce her death and throngs of admirers to come pay tribute. Instead, four people bid her farewell. As I grabbed earth with my fingers and dropped it onto her casket, I whispered an apology for how the world stole the dignity of her final moments.
Finding solace in the psalms of lament
Prof. Gina Hens-Piazza
In normal circumstances, the death of a loved one taxes the heart and mind with a paralyzing numbness. And, in normal circumstances, the traditional rituals of the Catholic faith – the vigil, funeral mass and graveside committal service – give mourners an occasion to honor the memory of the deceased and provide comfort.
A pandemic is not normal circumstances. The absence of these traditional practices compounds the rawness of grief.
I find examples of this creativity in how U.S. Catholic communities are using technology to accommodate gatherings of friends and family for consoling prayer, recitation of the rosary, online memorials and notes of remembrance. Some Catholic parishes have developed ministries of listening and consolation, with volunteers calling the bereaved or visiting online to offer support.
People are also commemorating their dead loved ones at home, lighting candles in their memory or playing their favorite hymns.
And while memorial liturgies have been postponed, families may find some comforting expressions of loss more immediately in biblical texts. The “psalms of lament” – especially Psalms 91, 121 and 130 – are prayers for help in surviving times of great pain. Such recitations provide words to narrate a pain and suffering so devastating it seems to eclipse words.
Healing begins after the homegoing
The Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler Jr.
For African Americans of the Baptist faith, death is a communal experience. It is in this coming together of family and friends and associates and neighbors that the healing begins.
As the Rev. Dr. Peter Wherry writes in his book “Preaching Funerals,” black Baptists often call funerals “homegoing services,” denoting the fact that the believer once transitioning is in a better state than when here…they have “gone home to live with [the] Lord.”
When someone transitions, despite the clear suffering attendant to a loss, we celebrate their life. This occasions sayings like “trouble don’t last always,” or “we will see X again.”
Though well worn, these cliches seek to comfort the mourning that their loved one is not really dead, but lives on with God.
Since homegoing services can bring together family from across the world, they usually take place a week or more after death to ensure everyone may participate. There is typically a viewing for people to pay their last respects before the service, and afterwards there is usually a parade to the cemetery. Burial comes with its own mini-service.
Following that is the repast – a meal expected to feed the guests and to allow for fellowship, storytelling, reuniting with distant loved ones and meeting those known only by name. This, though quite reverent, is also festive. It facilitates the resolution needed to progress after a loss.
I have presided at many such services, though not during the coronavirus pandemic. One piece of advice I would offer to those who mourn now is this: In the coming months, stay in close contact with those who also mourn. Call someone whenever you feel longing for the departed – share a sorrow, a song, a funny anecdote or a recollection of their quirks.
Share your grief. When you feel the urge to cry, let it out. Emotions are best handled not with reason, but by allowing yourself the freedom to feel them fully. And remember, the nadir of your grief is not a curse – it is an indication of how deeply you loved.
By CLAUDIA TORRENS, GISELA SALOMON, and PETER PRENGAMAN
When Crescencio Flores died of coronavirus in New York, his parents back in Mexico asked for one thing: that their son be sent home for burial.
The 56-year-old construction worker had been in the United States for 20 years, regularly sending money to his parents but never going home. Since he died in April, Flores’ brother has been working with American and Mexican authorities to have the body transported to the town of Huehuepiaxtla in the state of Puebla.
So far, his efforts have been in vain. His brother’s embalmed remains are still in a U.S. funeral home.
“I am trying to do this because my parents, 85 and 87 years old, live there,” Francisco Flores said. “They are rooted in their customs. They want a Christian burial for the remains of their son.”
The family’s situation is common. More than a thousand Mexican immigrants have died of the virus in the U.S., according to the Mexican government, and many of their families are struggling to bring dead loved ones home.
Returning a body to another country is never easy, but the coronavirus has added extra bureaucracy and costs, all at a time when many Mexicans have lost jobs in construction, retail and restaurants.
For grieving loved ones on both sides of the border, the challenges are many: overwhelmed funeral homes, delays in paperwork because government offices are not working at full capacity and limited flights.
The process has become so difficult that the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles is encouraging cremation instead of repatriation and burial, said Felipe Carrera, a consular official.
“In a situation like this, we are encouraging our community to have an open mind,” Carrera said, explaining that cremation allows a loved one to return to Mexico in a week or 10 days. He declined to say how long it takes to return bodies. Family members who have opted for cremation say sending ashes home takes several weeks to months.
Cremation is a hard sell for many Mexicans, who are by far the largest immigrant group in America and deeply rooted in Catholicism. They are fiercely proud of their homeland despite problems that pushed them to emigrate, and they carry with them a constant hope to return one day, at the very least upon death.
And because many of them — particularly those who are in the U.S. illegally — have not been home in decades, returning in death is that much more important to their families.
For Mexican Catholics, having the body of a deceased relative is essential to giving them a “good death,” said Dr. Kristin Norget, an anthopology professor at McGill University in Montreal.
“Wakes are really important events in which the person is there, the casket is open, people go and bid that person farewell. They touch them. They kiss them,” Norget said. “It’s that tactile relationship with the body, representing the person.”
For over a month, the family of Javier Morales, 48, and brother Martin Morales, 39, who both died in New Jersey during the first week of April, tried to send the bodies to Santa Catarina Yosonotú, a village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The brothers had both left the village as teenagers, and family wanted to bury them there.
But after complying with U.S. and Mexican regulations, relatives said they hit roadblocks with health officials in Oaxaca. They eventually gave up and had the brothers created. Now they are working to have the ashes sent back, a process they estimate will take several weeks.
Between the lengthy stay in a funeral home and cremation, the family spent more than $12,000.
“It’s really sad,” said Rogelio Martin, a cousin who was close to the brothers. “We wanted to send them home, but it wasn’t possible.”
Felix Pinzón’s family went through a similar process. Pinzón wanted to send the body of his half-brother, 45-year-old Basilio Juarez, a construction worker, back to Cuautla, a city in the state of Morelos. The consulate warned him that the effort would be fraught, he said.
Juarez’s wife and two children back in Mexico “wanted to see the body,” Pinzón said. “They asked me to bring it back. At first, my niece did not understand that it was not possible. She did not want to accept it.”
Even though he chose cremation, Pinzón won’t be able to send the ashes back any time soon. The cremation cost $2,100, which he had to put on a credit card because as a construction worker he has been out of a job for more than two months.
When Marta Ramos, 63, died in New York, daughter Juanita Ramos, who lives in Bakersfield, California, hoped to fulfill her mom’s last wish, to be buried in Mexico. Since returning her mom’s body would be difficult, Ramos looked into cremation, figuring she could at least send the remains home quickly and have them buried there.
But the funeral home told her that a backlog of bodies meant that her mom would not be cremated for a month. Feeling that was too long to wait, and worried that her mom’s body could be lost, Ramos decided to have her mother buried at a cemetery in New York. Her aunt, Agustina Ramos, 55, died just ahead of her mother and had already been buried there.
For the Flores family, the long wait for Crescencio’s body has been painful, said Gerardo Flores, his oldest brother, who is in Mexico. But relatives feel strongly about bringing him home.
“We believe that in the moment my brother is buried, even as painful as it will be, in this sad moment, it will be the last chapter. We will turn the page. My parents will know where their son is,” he said.
Between the coronavirus and police killings, Black communities are coping with seemingly endless grief. The absence of funerals during the pandemic has been particularly devastating to a culture in which collective mourning plays a vital role.
By Nyle Fort
But the death toll only tells one side of the story. The other side is the anger of being unable to see or touch your deceased loved one for the last time. It’s “a different type of grief,” says Carolyn Whigham, my mother’s longtime partner and co-owner of Whigham Funeral Home in Newark, N.J. “This is where you snot. Cry. Stomp. Shout. Cuss. Spit.”
I asked Carolyn and my mom, Terry Whigham, about their experiences as Black undertakers during the coronavirus outbreak. The stories they shared speak to the scandalous nature of the pandemic. We’re not only grieving our dead. We’re grieving the inability to properly grieve.
This is not our new normal. This is the death of normal.
THERE WAS NEVER a dull moment growing up in a Black funeral home. After school, my brother and I played hide-and-seek between and inside caskets. Our chores included rolling old Star-Ledger newspapers used to prop up bodies for wakes. In the summers, when I wasn’t at basketball camp, I passed out peppermints and tissues to family members of the deceased. I knew I didn’t want to make a living burying the dead. But I was spellbound by the way we mourn.
Service after service I witnessed the electricity and elegance of Black grief. The adorned body laid out in an open casket. Elders dressed in their Sunday best tarrying and telling stories of the good ol’ days. Teenagers with a classmate’s face emblazoned on R.I.P. T-shirts. A spirited eulogy followed by a festive repast where soul food is served and family drama unfolds.
It’s a ritual of death transformed into a “celebration of life.”
For Black communities, who have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, bans on funerals have been particularly devastating. I understand why. Not only did I grow up in a Black funeral home, but I’m currently finishing my dissertation on African American mourning.
Burial traditions have long animated African American culture, politics, and resistance. During slavery, insurrectionists like Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner plotted rebellions at slave funerals. A year before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Mamie Till held an open-casket service for her slain son so “the world could see what they did to my baby.” The publication of the images of Emmett Till’s mutilated body, many historians argue, was the match that sparked the civil rights movement.
Three years ago, white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and slaughtered nine black parishioners. The day after President Barack Obama eulogized pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney, activist Bree Newsome scaled a 30-foot pole at the South Carolina State House and removed the Confederate flag. “I was hoping that somehow they would have the dignity to take the flag down before his casket passed by,” she said in an interview after her arrest.
What does this have to do with the coronavirus? Black grief does not begin or end at the funeral procession regardless of how someone has died. Our dead live on in the food we eat, the songs we sing, the children we raise, the ballots we cast, the movements we build, and the dreams we struggle to make real. But how can African Americans work through the psychological wage of unfathomable grief without the sound of a Hammond B-3 organ, or tender touch of an auntie, or the smell of cornbread and candied yams, or the sight of our loved one’s beautified body?
“Could your big mama cook? Did you save any of her recipes?” Carolyn asks a family friend whose grandmother, who was known for her peach cobbler, passed away from COVID-19. “No, because it was all in how big mama did the crust,” the granddaughter explained.
“Well, maybe grandma couldn’t write down how to do the crust but did you stand over her shoulder and watch how she kneaded that flour?” Carolyn asks. She wants to make sure that what remains in the wake of loss doesn’t pass away with grandma.
The great poet and activist Amiri Baraka, whom my family funeralized in jazzy splendor, spoke to this in his book “Eulogies”: “I want to help pass on what needs to live on not just in the archive but on the sidewalk of Afro-America itself.”
How do we keep that tradition alive amid deserted sidewalks and overcrowded morgues? Hell, how do we keep ourselves alive as we witness, once again, Black death go viral?
I HEARD ABOUT the killing of Ahmaud Arbery the day after my friend’s father died of COVID-19. Then I heard about the killing of Breonna Taylor by police officers who burst into the wrong home to look for a suspect who was already in custody in Louisville, Ky. Then 21-year-old Dreasjon Reed and 19-year-old McHale Rose, two Black men killed by Indianapolis police within an eight-hour stretch. Then, before I could finish writing this story, George Floyd, another Black man, was killed by a white police officer, who pinned him to the ground for eight minutes as he pleaded for his deceased mother and yelled “I can’t breathe,” echoing Eric Garner’s last words.
I refuse to watch the videos of the killings of Ahmaud, Dreasjon, or George. I’ve seen the reel too many times. Different city, different cop, different circumstances. Same horror story. But when I heard that a detective in Indianapolis said “it’s going to be a closed casket, homie,” evidently referring to Dreasjon’s funeral, I lost it.
Unfortunately, I’m used to police playing judge, jury, and executioner. But this officer had the audacity to assume the role of an undertaker, too. It’s nauseating.
Black people are not only dying at alarming rates from the virus. We’re still dying from pre-existing conditions of racial injustice. There is no ban on police brutality during this pandemic. We are losing jobs and loved ones. Police are dragging us off buses for not wearing masks, while prison officials are withholding personal protective equipment to our loved ones behind bars.
Truth is: The pandemic is unprecedented but all too familiar. The endless grief hits close to home. In one year, my family buried my brother, father, and grandmother. My mom visits my brother’s crypt almost every day. Between funerals, she steals away and sits with his remains. For Thanksgiving she brings him pork chops smothered in gravy. His favorite. On the anniversary of his “transition,” as she likes to call it, she gives his shrine a makeover and sings Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gon’ Come.” Chad had an old soul.
I last saw my brother on his 32nd birthday, four days before a heart attack took his last breath away. My memory of his funeral comes in shards. I remember the sound of the drums and the look on my mom’s face and me laughing quietly to myself at the idea that he had won our final game of hide-and-seek.
In the midst of our own grief, my family has provided dignified memorial services to Black people in New Jersey, including Sarah Vaughan, Amiri Baraka, Whitney Houston, and the countless beautiful lives whose names and stories don’t make national headlines. Like the daughter of the woman who banged on the funeral home window. A week later, the woman held her shirt still as my mom, standing a short distance away in personal protective equipment, pinned a brooch that contained a photo of her daughter who’d just been cremated.
The woman wept and said, “It’s the little things that mean so much.”
She’s right. A spirit of care and compassion sits at the heart of our heroic efforts to stay alive, too.
In the midst of all of the death and violence, Black people continue to fight back, risking our lives to save others. I witnessed hundreds of protesters wearing face masks chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” at the intersection of West 62nd Street and Michigan Road in Indianapolis, where Dreasjon was shot and killed. I thought about the residents of Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Mo., who, before Mike Brown’s blood had dried, planted flowers between teddy bears and empty liquor bottles to commemorate his death. I pictured Bree bringing down the Confederate flag, and the heartaches and heartbeats of Black joggers as they “ran with Ahmaud.” Today, I marvel at the bravery of people across the country protesting George’s killing and resisting patterns of police violence amidst the deadliest pandemic in over a century.
Even Carolyn and my mother — who don’t consider themselves activists — provided a hearse for a funeral procession protest honoring the memory of the 45 inmates who have died from the virus in New Jersey prisons.
My family’s funeral home embodies the incredibly essential work before us all today: burying our dead while refusing to let death have the last word.