“[W]e are running out of fresh Black bodies to bury,” reads a 2016 Facebook post from a staff member at an African-American-owned mortuary in Cincinnati, Ohio.
This is the world the mortuary worker Dave Foreman lives in. In the highly competitive business of trying to get a job as a funeral director, Foreman has the fourth most hours in his week. He gets up at 4 a.m. to get his dogs ready. Then he goes to the funeral home he works at, M. Johnson Memorial Crematory, to start the day’s work.
After a day’s work, Foreman takes a break and heads to a local diner, then quickly picks up his shifts for the next day. If he’s lucky, he gets to get home before 10 p.m. Or sometimes it’s as late as midnight.
Foreman is part of an on-going conversation about how death changes the role of Black people. White Americans tend to get memorialized as individuals, while Black Americans get memorialized as victims. But the presence of other Black people is still a sore point in this industry. Non-Black workers make up nearly 90% of mortuary employees nationwide, according to a 2016 Vital Statistics report. And Black employees make up less than 2% of that workforce.
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A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of five Black employees claims that the mortuary failed to create a safe working environment. It says that toxic, racist comments from employees was rampant, and that the managers lied on interview and background checks to qualify people to work at the mortuary. A judge recently dismissed the claims, however, because of a lack of evidence that would allow for a jury trial.
“When you’re dealing with people who don’t necessarily understand … and that comes across in the nature of conversations, I can’t help but think that there’s a possibility that that’s creating some tension,” says Annette Payne, a sociologist at Wake Forest University and co-author of This Devil We Called Death: The Sociology of Black Death in the United States. “What would it take to bridge that gap?”
Five years ago, Foreman felt the tension himself. A coworker, Cynthia Brown, was fired from her job as a custodian at Foreman’s mortuary for not being an African-American. A few weeks later, Foreman was held back from a promotion when he was determined to be a “first generation Black American”. He had to correct his history, or he would not be promoted in the future.
During a recent interview with the Guardian, Foreman described the work he does as taxing on many levels. Mortuary workers are often accused of creating the grief in their community, one part at a time.
“People also say, ‘Why aren’t there more Black people doing this job?’” he says. “And you start hearing that [topic].”
Foreman and his co-workers understand how their work impacts the lives of others. They work all day to help others turn their sorrow into closure. But they also get sucked into their own grief.
Foreman’s own pain comes out in moments where he opens up and suffers. One death, after all, is impossible to celebrate.
“We’re there dealing with the grieving, and when you’re there, sometimes your pain comes through,” Foreman says. “You may cry at the drop of a hat.”
Earlier this year, Foreman had a tumultuous day. When the funeral home’s manager asked for a final tally of the hours, he thought he had mislaid his spreadsheet. He was told that he’d overworked his workers. Foreman and the others took it up with the manager and they’re asking for him to be held accountable for his actions.
So, why the tone that you take?