Sen. Kamala Harris announced her bid for president on Martin Luther King Day, the holiday honoring one the world’s most revered leaders. Later that day in January 2019, Harris showed up at her alma mater, Howard University, less than two miles from the White House, the place she was vying to make her home.
“Some people are asking, ‘Why are you bringing everyone together here?’” Harris said on that January day. “It is because Howard University is one of the most important aspects of my life. It is where I ran for my first elected office, which was freshman class representative of the liberal arts student council at Howard University. So, this is where it all began.”
Although Harris ultimately called her presidential campaign quits, citing a lack of funding and dropping out of the most diverse pool of candidates in history, she made history again Wednesday night when she officially accepted the nomination to be the Democratic Party’s vice president, the first woman of color on a major-party ticket.
For the alumni and students enrolled in the hundred or so historically Black colleges and universities, Harris’ ascent to be in contention for one of the highest offices in the land has been something to celebrate. Harris made sure they knew the love is mutual; in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, she counted her “HBCU brothers and sisters” as her “family.”
Harris’ supporters and critics who are bonded to her by the shared legacy of an HBCU education are weighing what this moment means to them personally, but also the potential it has to raise the profile of HBCUs more broadly.
“This is a moment in history that is empowering for women, especially women of color, and it is an opportunity to give our voice to HBCUs producing the best,” said Inez Brown, 55, who was initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. at Howard University with Harris in the spring of 1986.
Brown began college at Cornell University, a predominantly White institution, where she says she had a great experience but couldn’t help feeling that something was missing. After a year, she transferred to Howard. Surrounded by so much diversity — more diversity and versatility than you see anywhere else, she said — she felt supported by an institution she felt was committed at its core to her success.
“But even some [Black people], we will sort of look at HBCUs like they are inferior to [predominantly White institutions],” Brown said. “You just have to look at the products that come out of HBCUs and you have to say to yourself, ‘How could people possibly think that way?’”
HBCUs represent just 3 percent of America’s colleges and universities, yet nearly one in five Black people with college degrees have one from these schools. Women have outnumbered men at HBCUs since the 1970s, and these institutions are helping to level the gap in science fields, producing nearly half of all Black women who earned a degree in science, technology, engineering or math from 1995 to 2004.
HBCUs, which were founded primarily after the Civil War to educate formerly enslaved people who were shut out of other higher learning institutions, continue to face their fair share of challenges to secure funding and keep accreditation. Yet they continue to do more with less, graduating more poor Black students than predominantly White schools, and more upwardly mobile Black graduates than their counterparts with much heftier endowments.
These institutions persist as academic powerhouses, producing politicians, physicians and prominent leaders in every field. Graduates are provided a bastion of Blackness before bearing the brunt of bigotry lurking beyond the gates of their campuses.
During their senior year at Howard, Brown and Harris were initiated into Alpha Kappa Alpha. Brown has known Harris longer than she hasn’t, and she said their line (the class of women who joined the sorority together) never hesitates to pick up the phone and rally around each other, or show up to an induction — or, if things work in their favor, a presidential inauguration next year.
“Through it all she has been, to us, our line sister Kamala,” Brown said. “She is so authentic, and that is so inspiring for us because you do not have to pretend, forget from where you come, assimilate into society.”
Alpha Kappa Alpha was founded in 1908 on Howard’s campus as the first sorority for Black women, boasting members such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. Brown recognizes this moment as meaningful for many, but it’s not lost on her that Harris, who’s broken so many “firsts” in her career, has done so as the member of the first chapter of the first sorority for Black women.
“It is really a nod to our founders,” Brown said. “That they were able to establish something so special and so awesome at a time it was not the norm — for Black women to get together to establish a professional organization legally. It wasn’t just a club. It is a history of excellence. ”
Nearly three decades later, Brittany Foxhall, 28, was initiated into Howard’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the same one as Harris. And Foxhall also had the experience of the high-stakes student body elections, coming out victorious as student body president.
“That could legitimately one day be me,” Foxhall said of Harris. “It seems surreal. It’s really powerful. I think Howard kids right now are trying to take ownership over this elation right now, but it means so much more. I’m excited to share her, and share this with people who aren’t Howard alums and aren’t a part of AKA.”
The day Biden announced Harris would join his ticket, Foxhall’s group text with her sorority sisters “blew up.” She felt a mix of emotions: She chewed over not being particularly interested in a Joe Biden presidency, and the question of Harris’ record as a prosecutor.
There was Harris’ 2011 truancy policy during her time as California Attorney General — which Harris has since apologized for — and her choice to be involved with law enforcement at all. That’s just politics, Foxhall ultimately reasoned. All of them have done something that could be deemed problematic, she said. It’s not fair to expect Harris to have had a “2020 mindset” 20 years ago.
“I can’t wrap my head around how anything she’s done in her past is even close to the fascism we’re experiencing now,” Foxhall said.
Foxhall watched the Twitter battles over her “big sister,” and became alarmed that there were people who would prefer to not vote at all. Reading the conversations, Foxhall felt a sense of clarity for what her role would be heading into November.
“As a Howard grad, as a soror, and a Black woman, there needs to be an expectation to protect her,” Foxhall said. “I’m not going to allow this to go down. She’s about to clean up a hell of a mess, and that’s going to be a lot.”
Gabrielle Horton, 29, has added her voice to some of the Twitter conversations leveling criticism against Harris. Despite their shared identities as Black women from California who graduated from an HBCU — Horton went to Spelman College in Atlanta — Harris’ nomination gave Horton no sense of excitement. She is tired.
“I think that this election cycle, 2020, the uprisings, the pandemic, the man that we have in the White House, have sucked all of the energy or any bit of joy I think I might have felt before,” she said.
Like Harris, Horton was bitten by the political bug while attending an HBCU. She worked in the late Rep. John Lewis’ office, and after graduating in 2012, she joined then-President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign as a field organizer in North Carolina.
Horton financially supported Julián Castro’s bid for the White House. The country “wasn’t ready” for him, she says, but she was hopeful the progressives like him running for office would plant new ideas and push the party more to the left.
“We need an immediate change, people who are responsible and who can step to the plate to lead,” Horton said. “It doesn’t mean that they’re perfect or that we agree on everything. We have a lot of work to do even with Kamala and Joe in office next year, but that’s an easier push than trying to do anything in this administration.”
When Harris accepted the vice presidential nomination, she credited the younger generation with pushing the country where it needs to go. For Horton, that means holding Harris and Biden accountable for their records on crime and law enforcement. In light of the uprisings in response to police brutality this summer, it’s hard to wrestle with this ticket, but at least they’re taking it seriously, Horton said.
Horton wishes she was having “a feel-good time” with an HBCU grad potentially heading to the highest office. But her complicated feelings mirror the reality of being Black in America, holding many things to be true at once — the joy and the trauma, Horton said. She is prepared to hold Harris accountable, just as she feels she has to do the same for HBCUs that have struggled to find ways to be more inclusive of trans and queer people and survivors of sexual assault.
“A lot of HBCUs, including Spelman and including Howard, respectability politics sometimes trumps how all students experience their time,” Horton said. “In many ways some of the pushing and advocacy people have been doing to make them these fully realized spaces to make sure all Black lives matter … is similar to the work we are doing, or have to do, with this Biden-Harris administration.”
But despite her hangups, Horton still feels a connection to the fellow HBCU graduate.
“There’s some experiences only we understand and have had, and it’s a very special connection and bond,” Horton said. “This is not the last HBCU alum we’re going to see in the White House. We can thank her for opening up that door.”
Bennett College, a historically Black college for women in North Carolina, almost lost its accreditation a year ago. It launched the Stand With Bennett campaign and raised more than $8 million to put toward an accreditation appeal and prove its financial viability.
This year, it has a new president at the helm, Suzanne Walsh, who is leading a fully-virtual school year for now. With the coronavirus impacting people of color disproportionately, she just couldn’t see a way to reopen in person. If there’s a silver lining, the fight for Bennett’s future positioned them to be prepared for lower enrollment, reduction in revenue.
Walsh takes pride in Harris’ achievements “as if we all personally helped her,” she said in an interview.
Walsh has worked with HBCUs through her time at different fundraising foundations, but did not attend an HBCU herself. She hopes that Harris being a product of an HBCU gives more visibility to schools like Bennett, whose students joined the Woolworth sit-ins in 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, as part of the fight for integration.
“I hope that people do see HBCUs as part of an incredible part of the past and history and also a vibrant springboard for the future — it really is toggling between those two worlds,” Walsh said.
And Walsh is impressed with Biden too. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, she joined a conference call with Biden and a handful of other HBCU presidents — she was the only woman among them. The presidential candidate asked what issues were on their minds, and Walsh said she riffed on her concerns about Breonna Taylor and the role of Black women out in community, businesses and in the streets. Biden circled back to Walsh’s remarks, calling her madame president, and thanked her for bringing up these issues.
“He had such an appreciation and understanding that I didn’t expect for what the conversations were amongst Black women that, quite frankly, it threw me,” Walsh said. “There’s no grandstanding. This is just a tiny conversation of people, there’s no media, we’re just on a phone.”
Dana Williams, chair of the Department of English at Howard University, pointed out that the Biden-Harris ticket represents the first time a Democratic ticket is without an Ivy League degree since 1984.
At this moment in history, the possibility of having an HBCU graduate in the White House “rejects supremacist notions and mythologies about American exceptionalism” that Ivy League institutions uphold, she said. HBCUs have always been about advancing promise, from Howard Law School alumni Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Board, and using the school’s resources to prepare the case, to their fostering of notable leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, NASA scientist Katherine Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois. Their students have never had the luxury of accepting the status quo. It’s why Willams herself made the “political decision” to choose Howard, and be trained by the best scholars of literature — whether others recognize them as such or not.
Williams hopes that even if people can’t rally behind Harris, that they can rally behind Black women, who’ve been so reliable, dependable and consistent in politics. Harris’ nomination is a signal, a dare, to ever ignore them again.
“There are Black people who aren’t excited about her candidacy, but I think ultimately, it’s more important that Black women’s vote-labor has finally been acknowledged as valuable in a leadership position,” Williams said. “Black women have saved the Democratic Party over and over again only to be ignored. …We have reached the point where we have commanded the respect of people that should’ve been respecting us all along.”
Williams is a fellow member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, and has exclusively studied at HBCUs: bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University in Louisiana, master’s and doctorate from Howard. Williams said she doesn’t think she would’ve been any less excited if Harris weren’t her sorority sister, but it added a “personalization factor.”
Williams said that Harris launching her presidential campaign in January 2019 and going straight to Howard University signaled her consciousness of wanting to be perceived as undeniably Black, connected to institutions that produce “social engineers” and change agents.
“She’s so poised,” Williams said. “It’s part prosecutor, but a tremendous part of it is Black-girl confidence that comes out of an HBCU.”
Preachers, politicians and family members of Black people who had been killed or shot by police gathered on the National Mall on the anniversary of the March on Washington.
They called for new legislation to address racial inequities in the country.
And they urged people to vote.
Among the speakers Friday (Aug. 28) was a son of Martin Luther King Jr.
He urged participants — who watched on television, online and in-person — to continue the work of the 1960s with what his father called the “coalition of conscience” by seeking a country that seeks love and health and dispels fear and hate.
“To achieve that America, we need to raise our voices and cast our votes,” King said. “There’s a knee upon the neck of democracy and our nation can only live so long without the oxygen of freedom.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and other speakers echoed some of the same themes enunciated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the first march in 1963.
“We come in the same spiritual lineage,” said Sharpton, organizer of the Commitment March, after members of King’s family addressed the crowd. “’cause I want this country to know that even with your brutality you can’t rob us of our dreams.”
Sharpton announced the event — also called the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march — as he preached at the funeral for George Floyd, a Black man who died in May under the knee of a white police officer.
Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial before thousands, Sharpton said that Black people have long fought bigotry. But he noted that members of the interracial crowd that gathered in the same spot where others marched in 1963 have the power to move beyond their circumstances.
“We are the dream keepers, which is why we come today — black and white and all races and religions and sexual orientations — to say that this dream is still alive. You might have killed the dreamer but you can’t kill the dream.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, left center, makes his way to the podium to speak during the March on Washington, Friday Aug. 28, 2020, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Before the throngs of people started marching to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the granddaughter and a son of the famous civil rights leader took turns at the microphone to speak where their predecessor had appeared 57 years before.
“Americans are marching together — many for the first time — and we’re demanding real, lasting structural change,” said Martin Luther King III. “We are socially distanced but spiritually united. We are masking our faces but not our faith in freedom.”
The crowd was addressed by speakers mostly in person and some, including Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, by video. Gospel singer BeBe Winans sang an original composition that he wrote to his then-15-year-old son after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police in 2015.
“In one moment, dreams are scattered,” he sang. “Our sons and daughters matter. Black lives matter.”
Winans performed in between brief remarks by family members and lawyers of Black people who had been killed. They recalled their loved ones, thanked the crowd for their support and urged the marchers to vote. Many wore masks or T-shirts with names or images of their relatives.
“There are two systems of justice in the United States,” said the father and namesake of Jacob Blake, the man who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday. “There’s a white system and there’s a Black system. The Black system ain’t doing so well. But we’re going to stand up.”
While the elder Blake cited Allah, the Muslim name for God, in his remarks, other parents mentioned Bible verses as they urged continuing advocacy.
Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, whose killing in 2012 led to the Black Lives Matter movement, said her favorite passage is Proverbs 3:5-6, which begins: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not unto your own understanding.”
“Even though it looks dark, I want to tell you to be encouraged,” she said. “Don’t stop saying Black Lives Matter. Don’t stop peaceful protesting. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop unifying. Stand together.”
In the pause between speeches, many of which called for legislation to improve voting rights and reform police agencies, the crowds and speakers often engaged in a call-and-response recitation of the names of people who had been killed over the years.
Event co-host Mark Thompson, a radio show host who was helping introduce the various speakers, acknowledged that many of the people representing those names didn’t have a chance to come to the microphone before it was time to march.
“Sisters and brothers,” he said, “the problem is the police have killed so many of us there’s not even enough time for us to hear from every family.”
Urban gun violence is an entrenched but not intractable problem, evidence shows. Since the 1990s community anti-violence initiatives – many of them run out of churches – have reduced crime locally, at least temporarily, by “interrupting” potential violence before it happens.
One such program is Cure Violence, previously called Chicago CeaseFire. Founded in 1999 with Illinois state funding, CeaseFire employed community members with street credibility – that is, status in their community – to identify those at highest risk of being shot or being a shooter, then intervene in feuds that might otherwise end with fatal gunfire.
Working with churches, schools and community groups like the Boys and Girls Club, CeaseFire also helped gang members and at-risk youth move beyond street life by finishing their studies, finding a job or enrolling in drug and alcohol treatment.
A local pastor, Frederick LaMarr, offered his Family Missionary Baptist Church to host the group’s anti-violence work, giving rise to Ministries for Movement. In 2010, having studied Columbus’ crime data, I invited the group to implement a local CeaseFire program.
CeaseFire Columbus adopted many of Chicago’s violence interruption tactics, but the guiding philosophy of Pastor LaMarr and Brother Ahad was to meet everyone with compassion and openness, whether they were a grieving mother or a gang member.
To convince high-risk young people to stop killing each other, they used positive motivation – not threats of jail time, as some CeaseFire programs do. Evidence shows young people trapped in a cycle of violence are often willing to drop their guns for the chance of a better life: a high school degree, say, or a job offer in a field of interest.
LaMarr and Ahad also encouraged perpetrators of violence to take responsibility for their actions. Sometimes, that meant turning themselves in to authorities. Other times, it meant making amends through community service.
Ministries for Movement has helped several hundred young Columbus residents escape gangs. My evaluation for The Ohio State University found that between 2011 to 2014, CeaseFire Columbus helped to reduce shootings by 76% in our 40-block target area. For one 27-month period, no one was murdered.
The first homicide after those two years of peace was heartbreaking. The victim, 24-year-old Rondell Brinkley, had been turning his life around with the help of Ministries for Movement. Days before his murder, Brinkley had inspired attendees at a community event with his personal story of change.
Gardening for change
Violence interruption works, but it takes intensive and sustained effort. That can be difficult with a volunteer staff.
CeaseFire Columbus achieved its best results after getting US$125,000 in grants to expand its street outreach, community mobilizing, public health messaging and conflict mediation. Funding came from The Ohio State University, the Ohio attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.
Ministries for Movement is still active in South Side Columbus: It leads a healing march on the first Sunday of each month, among other activities. But CeaseFire became a casualty of lost funding and city politics. With gun violence quieter in our area but spiking in other parts of Columbus, Ministries for Movement is now sharing its approach with community members and faith leaders in those areas.
It is also trying something new to stop the violence: gardening.
In 2015, with Department of Agriculture funding, I worked with Ohio State to launch the Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability program and planted a garden at Pastor LaMarr’s church, replacing the overgrown rusty fence line of an abandoned neighboring house.
Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability helps young people build skills, strengthen social connections and improve health in their communities by growing and selling fresh food. Many of the program’s 300 participants have witnessed gun violence and deaths. Many say they find gardening therapeutic.
Surveys I’ve conducted find that Urban Gardening Entrepreneurs Motivating Sustainability improves participants’ eating habits, problem-solving and leadership skills, persistence and workforce readiness.
“Personally, it has taught me a lot of things: How to eat healthier, how to grow produce,” said Nasir Groce, who is now 13 years old, back in 2017. “It’s taught me that I can do anything I put my mind to.”
In the video above, Fukuoka residents Ruth, from Kenya, and Grace, from Tanzania, talk about how they arrived in Japan, what it is like to work at a traditional Japanese-style pub or izakaya, mastering the Japanese language at a high level, and how Japan shows “there’s life beyond a white-supremacy narrative.”
In this clip taken from one of our MFiles episodes, Tsietsi, a South African Meteorologist and Weatherman at NHK World Japan, shares his journey from South Africa to the Japanese news channel, with us.
The website and YouTube channel got its start in 2017 following the launch of Ranzo’s documentary “The Truth About Being Black in Japan“, in which he answers common questions he gets asked as he goes about daily life in Japan.
From that start, The Black Experience Japan continues on with a singular mission:
We still have a burning desire to share a plethora of experiences (and all things black in Japan) in an effort to paint a more accurate picture of life in Japan for the black individual.
We are made in the image of God, and then there is John Lewis. He was truly one-of-a-kind, a moral compass who always knew where to point us and which direction to march. To John’s family, friends, staff, and constituents, Jill and I send you our love and prayers.
Congressman John Lewis spent his life fighting racism and injustice wherever he confronted it, from boycotts, sit-ins, and other protests in the streets, to championing bold, progressive policies in Congress. #ripjohnlewispic.twitter.com/Sj3joYHWni
With the passing of John Lewis, America has lost not only a man of history, but a man for our season; O how we need such men of unwavering principle, unassailable character, penetrating purpose, and heartfelt compassion.
.@RepJohnLewis was a titan of the civil rights movement whose goodness, faith and bravery transformed our nation. Every day of his life was dedicated to bringing freedom and justice to all. pic.twitter.com/xMbfAUhLUv
As a young organizer in politics, John Lewis was an icon. He was among the first Freedom Riders at 21 years old risking his life to desegregate public transportation, was a leader in organizing his generation for Civil Rights, & spoke at the 1963 March at 23 years old pic.twitter.com/SSMCCbVmI0
John Lewis was an icon who fought with every ounce of his being to advance the cause of civil rights for all Americans. I’m devastated for his family, friends, staff—and all those whose lives he touched.
John Lewis’s impact extended far beyond America’s shores. His example inspired civil rights activists in Northern Ireland where, six years ago, he joined another remarkable John crossing the Peace Bridge in Derry. His legacy on our island is a great one. He will be sorely missed. pic.twitter.com/3L9Z1OeXmT
Hillary and I were blessed by his friendship, support and wise counsel. We’ll miss him so much, but we’ll always be grateful that he lived to see a new generation of Americans take to the streets in search of his long sought “beloved community.” https://t.co/gKDuLmUMLQ
My friend, role model, and activist extraordinaire has passed. Congressman John Lewis taught us how to be an activist. He changed the world without hate, rancor or arrogance. A rare and great man. Rest in Power and may God finally give you peace. #RIPJohnLewispic.twitter.com/uQY48LoFzx
To quote him,“every generation leaves behind a legacy. What that legacy will be is determined by the people of that generation. What legacy do you want to leave behind?” His presence in the halls of Congress and his legacy in our continuous fight for justice will be deeply missed pic.twitter.com/eoW5lA4pV1
John Lewis was the truest kind of patriot. He believed America could be better, even live up to its highest founding ideals of equality & liberty for all. He made good trouble to help us get there. Now it’s up to the rest of us to carry on his work. Rest in power, my friend. pic.twitter.com/a3gEAiMzp3
Norman J. Williams has been in the funeral industry business long enough to remember how the HIV epidemic changed not only the way they cared for bodies, but also for those who lost loved ones to the deadly virus.
“We wanted to be compassionate. We wanted to be professional. We wanted to be understanding. We wanted to be nonjudgemental,” said Williams, president and funeral director of Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago, a family business operating for more than 80 years.
There was stigma then, and to some degree, Williams said, that kind of shame still exists today as illness can sometimes be seen as a sign of poverty, bad behavior or misfortune.
“We learned we can do all of those things and still wear gloves and protective garments and still be careful how we treat the deceased, and recognize that how we behave is just as important as what we do,” Williams said.
These principles continue to guide Williams and his staff during the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the United States.
Nearly five months since COVID-19 spurred lockdowns and shelter-in-home policies, funeral homes, green burial conservations and houses of faith are continuing to innovate and adjust to a new normal for death care. And they’re doing all of this adjusting while states reevaluate their plans for reopening as the number of coronavirus infections swells in certain areas of the country.
Early on in the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon to see refrigerated trucks storing dead bodies in New York City as communities struggled with an increasing number of corpses.
Kemmis said there’s increasing confusion among her members surrounding the different reopening stages in local regions across the country. CANA has about 3,300 members, including funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories.
As states reopen, one funeral home in one county may be allowed to host gatherings with 50% capacity, while a funeral home on another neighboring county could only host at 25% capacity.
Erika Bermudez becomes emotional as she leans over the grave of her mother, Eudiana Smith, after she was buried in Bayview Cemetery, Saturday, May 2, 2020, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Bermudez was not allowed to approach the gravesite until after cemetery workers had buried her mother completely. Other members of the family and friends stayed in their cars. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
For Kemmis, knowing there have been COVID-19 outbreaks at funeral homes and churches has provided clarity on what they can and can’t do.
“Since we know that, everyone is trying to do their best, but it’s hard,” Kemmis said. “Funeral directors, they bend over backwards to give grieving families what they want.”
Kemmis has seen funeral homes hosting drive-thru viewings or visitations, with caskets placed under tents as family and friends drive by slowly, view the deceased and share their condolences at a distance.
In other occasions, funeral homes on cemetery property have put up large movie screens in the parking lot so crowds of people can watch the services from their cars.
Kemmis knows many people would like to hold off on memorial services for loved ones until they can meet again in person, but she believes it’s important to hold some kind of service — even a virtual one — soon after a death. Kemmis’ grandmother recently passed, and, she said, logging on to her memorial was comforting.
Not doing anything, Kemmis said, “is unfortunate because even if we had a Zoom gathering and shared memories, that would be a way to comfort each other.”
In Nashville, Larkspur Conservation, a nonprofit that conserves land and promotes natural burial, is working to find ways of preserving the “participatory element” of green or natural burials.
Loved ones typically lower the casket or shrouded body into the grave. They also fill the grave themselves, said David Ponoroff, assistant director of Larkspur Conservation.
Ponoroff said before a family buries their loved ones, Larkspur staff identifies who will be participating in the burial. Each person then gets a color-coded shovel that only they will be able to use.
“We’re trying to be creative about the ways that we’re doing the work, to make sure people who come are still able to find the meaningful, beautiful ways they get to be part of burial,” Ponoroff said.
At Unity Funeral Parlors, Williams has seen how modified visitations, or wake services, have still allowed for friends and loved ones to gather to see the deceased in a socially distanced manner.
Norman J. Williams. Photo by Bill Healy/WBEZ
In Illinois, in-person gatherings were at one point limited to 10 people or less.
During visitation services, Williams said people have been able to greet survivors and see the deceased in a come-and-go manner.
“Many people still wanted a traditional service with the body present, for burial or cremation,” Williams said. “They would be able to see the body, confront death, say a word to the survivors, but not stay.”
Williams said this has offered an “opportunity for more than 10 people to participate in honoring a life because they didn’t do it all in one time.”
To make other accommodations, Williams purchased a large TV to help broadcast services on Zoom.
In one Zoom service, 10 people were in the chapel while 50 others participated by reading scripture and offering tributes from their homes.
The funeral home chapel seats 200 people, leaving attendees enough space to socially distance. But, the hardest part, Williams said, “is a natural inclination to want to hug and to comfort and express compassion.”
“That was very difficult to resist, that urge to do that,” he said.
Another issue the industry is grappling with is the high cost of burial services, Williams said. At a time when many people may be out of work due to COVID-19, Williams said more people are choosing cremation because the cost of cemetery space continues to increase.
“It has increased at a rate that has exceeded their ability to save for it or plan for it,” Williams said.
But one thing Williams said remains constant is the need for spiritual companionship, even if from a distance. Clergy, he said, are having to redefine their presence.
“Sometimes it’s going to have to be in the funeral chapel. Sometimes it’s going to have to be curbside,” he said. “Their presence is still important … There’s still a lot of desire to have that presence.”
For the Rev. Susan Russell, a priest at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, navigating death care while adhering to social distancing has gotten a bit easier.
“There is a collective recognition that this is what we have to do right now,” Russell said.
But, she added, “It’s been one of the most challenging places for clergy to be in this time.”
In recent months, the church has lost parishioners to dementia, cancer and other illnesses.
“When it came time for them to pass, they were doing it on their own,” she said.
Ashes of some who have passed remain in a sanctuary space at All Saints, waiting for the time when loved ones can gather for services, Russell said.
While houses of worship in California can reopen for services at 25% of building capacity, or a maximum of 100 attendees, All Saints has not resumed in-person gatherings.
But, Russell said, just because their faithful can’t currently gather in person for rituals with candles, vestments and liturgy, it doesn’t make moments less holy.
Recently, Russell accompanied and prayed over a couple through Zoom after they suffered a miscarriage. While she wasn’t with them in person, “I know it was a holy moment to be present with this couple,” she said.
“As hard as this is, I believe we’re being reminded that the power of God’s love to bind us together is greater than even our most beloved rituals, liturgies and traditions,” Russell said.