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Fear and empathy at LA funeral home serving Black families

LOS ANGELES - When people began dying from the coronavirus in the United States, for a few weeks funeral home owner Candy Boyd declined to receive the remains of such patients.

There were too many unknowns, and Boyd didn’t feel like her employees had the training or equipment to safely handle the remains of people who may have active COVID-19 infection in their bodies. But the calls kept coming. Desperate families said other funeral homes were also not receiving people who died of the virus.

Boyd, 53, decided she had to make it work. She reminded herself that she got into the funeral home business more than 10 years ago after running a construction company because she wanted to help people in their most vulnerable state. And the communities her funeral home serves, Black people and others of colour in South Los Angeles, were clearly being hard hit.

“It tugged at my heart strings,” said Boyd. “To hear some of the stories I’ve heard in the last three months has been incredible. People having to say goodbye through an iPad, a window.”

“Many have not seen their family members in 30 days. The next time they see them is in a casket,“ she said.

With some other homes still not taking bodies, Boyd said her facility’s workload has increased by 40% while constantly adapting to changing state and local regulations.

“When the pandemic first started, I had nightmares, I would wake up in a cold sweat thinking about this,” said Boyd.

Boyd is among many funeral home directors and morticians with misgivings about whether to accept those felled by the virus. For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Carol Williams, executive director of the Georgia-based National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, said many of its 1,200 members have struggled to get high-grade protective equipment and decided not to.

“When you have somebody pick up a COVID case, they can catch the disease,” said Williams. “As an embalmer, you need a surgical mask, the same thing that doctors have in the hospital.”

Today at the Boyd Funeral Home, workers and visitors wear masks at all times. Visitors have their temperature checked at the door. When making arrangements, only two people are allowed in the office. For casket viewings, only five people are allowed in the chapel at a time. They can’t congregate, must maintain physical distance and are not allowed to linger. Until a few weeks ago, funeral services were limited to 25 people. Now those services must be held outside.

“I’ve gotten a lot of push back from families,” said Boyd. “We had one lady who said she was going to punch me in the eye because she couldn’t stand in the chapel.”

Founded in 1963 by Boyd’s husband, Reginald Boyd, the funeral home is in Westmont, an area of South Los Angeles that has historically had many Black residents and today also has large numbers of Latinos. Both communities have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 165,000 people in the U.S.

Boyd has close relationships with many families in Los Angeles. Workers recently handled the remains and organized the service for the 34-year-old daughter of family friends.

Not long before she died in the hospital, the woman told her mother, “I think COVID has got the best of me. If something happens, please tell Ms. Candy to come and pick me up,” Boyd recalled the mother telling her.

“I’ve seen heads decapitated, legs taken off. I’ve seen everything. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like this,” said Boyd. “What bothers me is that they keep saying that a lot more people are going to die.”
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