‘Playing Russian Roulette With Our Own Lives’: At Black-Owned Funeral Homes in New Orleans, COVID Takes a Harsh Toll

By Patrice Taddonio, FRONTLINE

As director of client services at D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home in New Orleans, Louisiana, Jasminne Navarre is used to being around grief and loss.

But when Tracey Branch, one of her colleagues at the Black-owned funeral home, died from COVID-19 last March, it hit Navarre and her team hard.

"Her passing touched everybody. She was a light within our organization,” Navarre says in Death Is Our Business, a new FRONTLINE documentary with Firelight Media and WORLD Channel, now streaming. “So, for her to pass, people were like, ‘If it could happen to her, it could happen to me.’”

Her colleague’s death signified a grim new era for funeral homes in New Orleans, a city that at one point had the highest per-capita COVID-19 death rate in the nation. The next week, Navarre says, as COVID cases and deaths mounted, the phones began ringing nonstop.

“The toll,” she says in the above excerpt, “it became heavy.”

That toll is explored in Death Is Our Business, directed by Jacqueline Olive. With the coronavirus disproportionately impacting Black, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islanders, Indigenous, and other communities of color in the U.S. due to what experts say are longstanding systemic inequities, the film examines in intimate and moving detail how Black funeral homes in New Orleans have had to adapt to the devastating impact of COVID-19.

Following the staff at two of the oldest Black-owned funeral homes in the city, the film documents their efforts to reimagine traditional cultural grieving practices for the COVID-19 era and bring comfort to a hard-hit city — while trying to keep from falling ill themselves.

“It's been a very stressful time,” says embalmer Stephanie Simon in the above clip. “It was like we were playing Russian roulette with our own lives. For a long time, I did not see my family. I didn't see them for like two months, because you know, my life was going to work and taking care of the COVID cases. I did not want to bring that home to my family.”

Simon, who was working at another Black-owned funeral home in the early months of the pandemic, is now with Rhodes. She recalls, at the height of the pandemic, working with 12 to 15 bodies each day, instead of the usual four to five.

“We had an influx of bodies, so we had to create another space for us to hold our bodies,” she remembers.

Like Navarre, Simon says the pandemic has taken a stark toll.

“We all know of loved ones or family or friends that have died because of COVID-19. And that's been very difficult,” she says, her voice starting to break.

For the full story, watch Death Is Our Business. The film, Jacqueline Olive’s first FRONTLINE documentary, was made as part of her FRONTLINE/Firelight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, an ongoing initiative created to support independent filmmakers of color interested in journalistic documentary filmmaking. The documentary is a powerful look at COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black communities, and how the virus has reshaped the process of saying goodbye.

Death Is Our Business, a co-production from FRONTLINE, Firelight Media and WORLD Channel, is now available for free streaming on WORLD Channel, at pbs.org/frontline,  and on the  PBS Video App

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