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Death rituals in Black communities have been altered or forgone in the pandemic

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

COVID-19's death toll in the United States keeps climbing. That number today is over 837,000. This has meant a lot of business for funeral homes over the last two years, but this doesn't mean funeral homes are making more money because many Americans went without costly burials, opting for less expensive cremations. This translates to a change in death rituals, especially in Black communities, which have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. Stephen Kemp directs Kemp Funeral Home in Southfield, Mich. He joins us now. Hello.

STEPHEN KEMP: Good morning.

RASCOE: I gather that your community and your funeral home has been through a lot during the pandemic. Can you tell me about your experience these past two years?

KEMP: Sure. Absolutely. Actually started in March of 2020. I'm just north of Detroit, to give people a kind of geographic area. It's kind of a melting pot of minority families that live in multigenerational homes. So really ravaged our community. And the infrastructure, namely filing of death certificates, getting cremation permits, getting people cremated or even buried, made it even more difficult. The courts had closed. The vital statistics departments had closed. The morgues were overrun and understaffed because of COVID.

RASCOE: So what are things like now?

KEMP: Things are a little better in terms of we now have the vaccine, so we - I'm still seeing that uptick because of this omicron variation but not as much as it was in 2020.

RASCOE: I was surprised when I heard business isn't booming necessarily for the industry because people are going with cremations as opposed to burials.

KEMP: I do see cremation growth because financially, it makes a whole lot of sense. We really - because of the pandemic, we really weren't prepared with insurances and with the proper amount of money to do that. And cemeteries have increased their prices really, really disproportionately to the inflation rate.

RASCOE: For - you know, for African Americans, for, like, my grandmother, my big ma (ph) would go to funerals. It was almost, like, a social occasion. Like, her and her sister - they went to funerals, like, every week. Like, there were all these rituals. You go around to see the family. There was the repass where you had the food. That is very different now, though.

KEMP: Sure. You are expressing really what was and in terms of historically going to churches, we - that is way down, way, way, way down. So you're beginning to see a lot more funerals here at the funeral home versus traditional places like a church. What I tell people - you didn't go to church your whole life. Why are you trying to have a traditional funeral now if you never seen the inside of a damn church? Excuse my language.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KEMP: And what is now - we have them in parks and tents, in people's homes, in the backyards. And what traditionally has been the funeral has evolved into more of a celebration of life. I tell people, get pictures together. Put them on a flash drive. Play the person's favorite music. Even - you know, we've had Tupac.

RASCOE: (Laughter). Wow. "Bury Me A G?" What? No.

KEMP: In terms of now in the repass - what we were doing during the pandemic is I was catering boxes. If you remember on the civil rights...

RASCOE: Yes.

KEMP: ...When we were on the buses or trains, when they didn't serve us, we had lunchboxes.

RASCOE: Lunchboxes, yeah.

KEMP: Well, a local African American restaurant here - soul restaurant - makes a box with historic indications on the outside and giving people the history of what we did. We serve those on the way out. So people take their box with you. Take your takeout with you. Take your juice and go on. And we all still celebrate. And, you know, people didn't turn that down.

RASCOE: Are there less people at the services now? Like, is it mostly just family?

KEMP: You know, I see a huge increase of people on the Zoom because number - you know, for obvious reasons, I don't have to travel. If I'm in Atlanta or out of the country, I can watch the entire funeral. Actually, I can participate. I've had, you know, ministers give the eulogy from their home office. I have a 75-inch big screen that I have on a trolley that I play, and they're standing there giving the eulogy. The funeral business is not like any other business in the terms of you adapting to the consumer's needs if you're going to survive.

RASCOE: Because it's so personal.

KEMP: Very, very personal. And I think that's probably, you know, when I said, as the last bastion of African American minority business, we still support one another in that industry because of our historical ties from the civil rights era. The funeral director was always the one that had the car and drove the civil rights person around. Even going back to the post-Civil War era, typically, white funeral directors took care of us. But they always put us in the basement. They always put us in the back room. The funerals weren't scheduled there. And then African Americans decided to enter the business, as well, in Birmingham, in Selma, in those areas that - where they need to march. What I always tell people is, who do you think paid the bail for those civil rights leaders who got put in jail for no reason down there? It was always the funeral director. The clandestine meetings that needed to be held without infiltration were typically held in what? A lot of people know - funeral homes.

RASCOE: As you say, your business has to evolve. But yet there's a heart to it. What are you doing to foster that for, you know, future generations?

KEMP: So I'm trying to give that to the younger generations. Monthly here, we do a seminar. And we talk about Medicare and Medicaid spend downs and planning for long-term care because people spend so - or lose a lot of their generational wealth because of long-term care because nursing homes can cost $6,000, $7,000 a month, and it depletes a senior's savings in no time. Now, does that have a lot to do with our business? I think it does. But mostly it's to help our community. And I think that's one of the things that we've got to maintain. And we're still going to do it even in the younger generation, in my son's generation.

RASCOE: Stephen Kemp, mortician and director of Kemp Funeral Home in Southfield, Mich., thank you so much.

KEMP: And thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.