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Black Pastor Conducts Funerals For People Untended By Traditional Church

Undertakers rehearsing a live streamed funeral. (Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)
Undertakers rehearsing a live streamed funeral. (Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)

More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic hit, Rev. Irene Monroe is exhausted. A Black pastor in Boston, she has been conducting daily Zoom funerals — often two a day — since last March.

Her funerals maintain pastoral care, respect and dignity for loved ones lost to COVID-19, yet there’s still an “incompleteness” about the virtual ceremonies, she says.

Monroe is learning firsthand the names behind the COVID-19 data showing communities of color are the country’s hardest hit. And she says it all feels sickeningly familiar to when she started her career during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

Back then, she conducted funerals for those otherwise marginalized by mainstream Black churches — at that time it was members of the LGBTQ community.

Now once again, she’s ministering to people she calls the “unchurched,” those who are made to feel somewhat uncomfortable in mainstream churches. Many of them are transgender women and youth, as well as those suffering from addiction and experiencing homelessness.

When the AIDS epidemic started to receive widespread recognition, it was often thought that white gay men were mainly impacted. Because of health disparities in the U.S., Monroe says “Black LGBT folks were just not in the data.”

But for those pastoring on the ground and “funeralizing” this community, Monroe and others could clearly see how vast the AIDS pandemic really was. In addition to many historic reasons, including slavery and the emasculation of Black men, the culture at the time bred shame around sexuality. Thus the phrase “down-low” came to be: Black men who shielded their wives from knowing about their secret gay lifestyle. Down-low men were then passing the virus to their wives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says HIV, which causes AIDS, affects Black heterosexual women more than women of any other race or ethnicity in the U.S.

“We knew of sisters that were dying of the AIDS epidemic and [it] had nothing to do with blood transfusion,” Monroe says.

Societal shame around AIDS, specifically in the Black community, caused people to hide their dying relatives away from the public eye, she says, or use code words to describe someone’s death.

“I remember one of the elders of my church back then and she said, ‘oh, my son died of consumption,’ ” Monroe says, “and I’m saying, what is consumption?”

This haunts Monroe as she witnesses parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic, since many traditional Black churches aren’t open to funeralizing LGBTQ parishioners.

And the added hardship of some families unable to recover loved ones’ bodies during the course of the pandemic hasn’t helped either, she says. Bodies were being stored wherever there was space, and oftentimes overflowing hospitals would use body bags and makeshift mobile morgues.

“I thought I was prepared for that because I have done funerals for 9/11, where you had missing bodies. I’ve done funerals that the family has not gathered,” she says. “It really troubles me that just as there was a stigma for AIDS in certain communities, Black and immigrant communities, it’s a stigma having this pandemic infect their lives.”

After Black women, the second largest group of Black Americans dying from COVID-19 is trans youth and adults, she says. When the pandemic subsides and the data comes out, she believes Black trans youth and adults — specifically runaways — will have fared worse during the pandemic than any subgroup within the Black community.

Young trans people who’ve run away from their homes often create “a kind of community similar as folks during the AIDS epidemic,” Monroe says, meaning their virtual funerals during the pandemic consist of only a small group of friends with no family members present.

“A lot of the young kids that I have done, I’m certain that their parents don’t know that maybe their child has transitioned,” she says.

Black women, in general, are severely impacted by health disparities and environmental racism, leading to high rates of death from the coronavirus, she says. In addition, Black women are disproportionately frontline workers.

Major health care discrepancies and othering the Black community add to the problem, she says. For example, false narratives such as Black people can tolerate pain at a higher level have lead some medical professionals to assume Black people asking for painkillers means “we just simply want to get high,” she says.

Even being a Black doctor doesn’t shield you from discrimination, she says, something she knows firsthand being married to an emergency room physician.

“There’s no hierarchy if you are a physician or if you’re educated,” she says, “if you have health care [or] if you live in the right zip code.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

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