Black Leaders Speak Out on Racism in Death and Deathcare

Six conversations & teachings I was privileged to attend

Another session of this course is scheduled for July 17th, 2020. Click image for info.

In the four weeks since a Minneapolis cop murdered George Floyd for all the world to see, I – along with many other white folks who’ve considered ourselves good anti-racist allies – have been looking more deeply into what I’ve had the privilege of not seeing; what I’ve looked away from; the places my work has fallen short of the values I think of myself as holding dear. Some of this entails digging deeply into my childhood and the ways growing up in a liberal but segregated environment taught me to be both racist and anti-racist. Some of this is devoted to study, reflection, and actions I can take now in response to and in support of the Movement for Black Lives. And some is focused directly on my work in death education and deathcare.

The racial justice framework I’m developing for my deathcare work is in its early days, with more conversation, writing, and accountability steps to take before I’m ready to share. This post delineates the first step in that process: listening to Black leaders (mostly women) who’ve been speaking out in the past four weeks about their family and community experiences with dying, death, and both mainstream and alternative deathcare and death education. This has included a vigil, three conversations among Black leaders, and two classes offered by Black deathcare practitioners geared towards predominantly white deathcare workers, all on-line. I received no special invitations to these events; the notices popped up in the social media feeds and email subscriptions I follow to stay abreast of what’s happening in the field of death awareness.

These conversations, teachings, and vigil offerings spoke to the multi-generational impact of centuries of traumatic deaths caused or impacted by systemic racism; to the ancestrally-informed resistance and resilience through which African American communities have cared for and celebrated their own, in and after death, in the context of ongoing systemic racism – and at times of heightened peril as with COVID-19; and to the bias, blindspots, and barriers encountered today in the “let’s talk about death” and alternative deathcare worlds.

Each of these events was live, and alive – with the pain, love, anger, intimacy, courage, and belief in a better day embodied in this willingness to pull back the curtain of ignorance on what was there to see all along. In most cases, a recording has been made available to those registered for the event. These recordings are not mine to share, out of respect for the intellectual property and intimate sharing of the speakers and the specificity of the context in which they were offered.

It’s important for white people to approach these teachings and intimate insights not as there for the taking or simply an opportunity for our own betterment. Seeking to understand Black lives and Black deaths calls us to take responsibility for putting time and effort into accessing information, respecting the pain and hard-won expertise of those willing to teach in this moment, including paying for that expertise with money and/or applied effort. Topic descriptions – illuminating in and of themselves – and contact links follow, for those seeking to learn more about some of those who are bringing their voices to advance awareness in this moment.

Recent Honoring, Awareness & Teaching Events

  1. Holding Each Other Tight, June 9 (Auburn Seminary & Reimagine)
    • Relying on the particular knowledge and experience Black women leaders bring to bear on these issues, this conversation will explore how the various resources within Black communities are being deployed to address this pandemic, the connection between how black women support themselves and others in times of crisis, and what these networks of support and response have to say about what it takes to create a world with more love and justice for all. An evening of story-sharing and truth-telling as these leading Black women healers, health-care activists, and clergy offer practical wisdom for living and dying in this moment:
    • Rev. Traci Blackmon is the Associate General Minister of Justice & Local Church Ministries for The United Church of Christ and Senior Pastor of Christ The King United Church of Christ in Florissant, MO.
    • Carla Gaskins-Nathan is the founder and CEO of Zelah, a consultant, educator and healing artist that believes true holistic wellness must be rooted in healing, social and racial justice. Carla is currently a co-facilitator of Auburn Seminary’s Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle.
    • Dr. Renée Hill is an anti-violence activist and trainer who has taught self-defense, self-empowerment and trauma recovery to people of all ages. She is currently a co-facilitator of Auburn Seminary’s Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle.
    • Alua Arthur is the Founder and Executive Director of Going with Grace, an end of life planning and support organization.
    • Imara Jones is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winner and the creator of TransLash Media, a cross-platform journalism, personal storytelling and narrative project, which produces content to shift the current culture of hostility towards transgender people in the U.S.
  2. Together on the 9th: A Virtual Candlelight Vigil, June 9 (Reimagine)
    • This standing monthly event featured a powerful racial justice focus through the opening and closing presented by Stephanie Rivers, Senior Director of Development, Reimagine; the candle-lighting invocation by Alua Arthur, Death Doula and Founder of Going with Grace; and commentary from Corey Kennard, Pastor of Amplify Christian Church and healthcare activist.
  3. Sayin’ It Louder: A Conversation about a “Good Death” in a Racist Society, June 10
    • Five Black leaders in the death and dying space in a 90-minute webinar: Addressing racism and grief from the perspective of Black funeral and death care professionals; Confronting racism disguised as implicit bias that exists against Black workers, Black deceased and patrons of their families; Creating a centralized database of grief resources for POC to access; What are the main barriers existing between Non-Black professionals and Black families? What am I doing to confront racism in the funeral service/death care industry? How can people be more supportive of their grieving friends in this time? What would you say to people who aren’t reaching out because they’re afraid to? What’s the purpose of taking tiny, tiny moments to tend to our grief right now? Presenters, with the contact links provided following the session:
    • Alua Arthur, Founder of Going with Grace, Death Doula, Attorney, Adjunct Professor and Ordained Minister: Website. Instagram. Facebook. Youtube.
  4. Racism in Death Care: Confronting Bias, Ignorance & Prejudice, June 19 (The Grave Woman LLC) SEE PHOTO CAPTION FOR UPCOMING SESSION NOW BEING OFFERED
    • Course Objectives: Provide non-black funeral professionals with a brief black history lesson that highlights and explores black cultural funeral and burial practices. Dissect the unspoken grievances that black and brown families harbor against white death care professionals in today’s social climate. Address racism and grief from the perspective of black death care professionals. Confront implicit bias, ignorance and prejudice against black and brown death care professionals, and patron families. Answer questions about racism, implicit bias, and prejudice from non-black death care professionals. 
    • Instructors: Joél Simone Anthony, Licensed Funeral Director and Sacred Death & Grief Practitioner: Website. Youtube. Instagram. Facebook. Anita Grant, funeral director, national board exam coach, behavioral health expert. Facebook. Instagram.
  5. Decolonizing Death & Moving Forward with Community Education, June 18 (National Home Funeral Alliance)
    • Join us for a conversation about black funerals in America with a hope to understand the different values, needs and cultural practices that are alive in our communities today. We will ask hard questions about racism and equity and how our awareness of these realities effect our advocacy work and the strength of our social justice movements.  
    • Presenter Dr. Kami Fletcher is an Associate Professor of History, Albright College [areas of expertise: Death & Dying, African American Cemeteries, Black Undertakers, the Southern Plantation, Women’s Studies, 19th and 20th Century U.S. history]. Co-editor of Till Death Do Us Part: American Ethnic Cemeteries as Borders Uncrossed. Currently, Dr. Fletcher is working on a second volume, Grave History: Death, Race & Gender in Southern Cemeteries from the Antebellum to the Post-Civil Rights Era. Website. Twitter. President of the Collective for Radical Death Studies.
  6. Dose of Togetherness: Death & Dying in the Black Community, June 19 (Reimagine)
    • Reimagine’s Senior Director of Development, Stephanie Rivers, alongside Latoya Cooper, CEO of Music Meets the Boardroom, for a discussion on the black experience with death and dying in a time of social unrest and COVID-19.

Other Death Awareness Anti-Racism Resources

There are many excellent compilations and tools circulating to deepen understanding and awareness of anti-Black racism in the U.S. Here I list only those directed to or created by those working in deathcare and death awareness that came my way via the presentations above.