Before COVID-19, I wanted a death parade—like a jazz funeral, but gayer. I wanted my body shouldered by friends and family, heralded down a boulevard. That, at least, was my fantasy. As someone born Muslim, my burial rites probably will be a Janazah, an Islamic burial. My family or loved ones have three sunsets to place my body in the ground, after washing me with camphor and other oils as they recite prayer. That might all change due to COVID-19. We are entering a new reality where embracing each other and our dead will be on Zoom or Skype, where the ritual of funeral may be placed online, like most of our lives. The bellowing cries of grief can be muted by the moderator, the person who overshares during remembrances can find themselves blocked. My family may not get to be with my body, and I’ll go, entering the next realm without the rejoice of music, prayer, and proximity.
How we mourn the dead is a deeply spiritual societal practice. It has its roots in religion and the constructs of racial politics. For enslaved Blacks, most of what remained of indigenous burial rites were supplanted by Christian burial traditions, but many were able to hold on to some customs of burial from home.
Humans have mummified our dead, held burials at sea, and cremated the bodies of those we love. The ritual of death befalls us all. The living gather as the dead are placed in caskets, shrouded in cloth, or positioned doing something we love, even in death. During the yellow fever plague, many Black people in Philadelphia died as a result, and a mass grave lies underneath the asphalt and cobblestones of the city. During the Spanish flu epidemic, which killed almost 100 million people worldwide, local governments imposed restrictions on public funerals. The dead were often unceremoniously tossed into their graves, sans funeral. Potter’s field, on New York City’s Hart Island, was a place where the vanguard of early AIDS patients were buried after dying due to complications of the virus. Governments respond to pandemics by being restrictive, and this leads to mourners and survivors shifting normal rituals of how to honor the perished.
These past weeks have been devastating for so many who identify as LGBTQI2S, as we mourn the loss of Nashom Wooden, an icon who was known widely as his drag persona Mona Foot, who died from complications of COVID-19 on March 23. Wooden leaves behind an abundant community, left to mourn in their silos, driven by quarantine. Another massive loss was when Lorena Borjas, a transgender Latinx community organizer known to mother so many in New York City, passed away on March 30, her death also attributed to the coronavirus. While reading about her in the New Yorker, I was moved by the vibrancy and resilience of her life. A woman who overcame so many obstacles to be and exist in her fullness, someone who shared so much of herself, physically and emotionally, was now left to be grieved on Zoom. It really made me consider the fullness of the societal shifts that will inevitably make its way to the norm.
Growing up, the funeral was a place of respite, reflection, and deep sorrowful embraces. Where even for a moment, the gathered reflected on the whys and why nots of not seeing each other, there assembled, you felt love and pain magnified. Wailing in a room of gathered mourners is not the same as sending a crying face emoji; the literal scent of flowers can’t help through the service if it’s a gif. In Black Christian traditions, the repass is a place to gather after a service to fellowship and break bread together. Imagine a world where a collective meal can’t be had or the pat on the back you needed can’t be placed upon your body because of a viral infection. Imagine today, a world where the most intimate we are sometimes is in the digital space, sharing our desires, our fears, and our hate by the click; now upon us too is the truth about our uncertainty, in life and in death.
In August 2012, when my ummi (mother) died of non–small cell metastatic lung cancer, the world around shook with unimaginable grief. Rubbing her body with oil after she died and playing music, I had to say my goodbyes. Then a year later when my father passed away, it painfully reminded me of the gift of mourning collectively, because I wasn’t invited to bid him farewell. Those precious byes, a final touch, an emotional soliloquy wasn’t afforded me, and that leaves me in shambles today. I was not worthy of goodbyes, my older siblings on my father’s side determined, because homosexuality is “haram,” they said. I cannot imagine the devastating impact of state-sanctioned measures to limit togetherness in death. I know the coming period will give us all grief-shock, because I’m saying goodbyes to people more online. The heart emoji, the prayer hands emoji, the crying face emoji—and the last touch, the flower emoji. These are goodbyes on this plane, as we yearn to be forever connected in the life that comes after.
I’ve been having many conversations with dear friends about the impacts of this pandemic on the vulnerable. Louie Ortiz-Fonseca is creator of the Gran Varones, a storytelling project, deeply connected to the legacies of “queer history” and “storytelling through a Black Latinx queer lens.” Louie and I held a live conversation on Instagram last week, compelled by the gravity of our current reality. Both of us are HIV positive. Living through this, we’ve experienced wrestling with mortality and burying our loved ones who have died of HIV. Speaking about the loss of Lorena and Nashom, he said, “The grief is and will continue to be massive” and that “in the 1980s, the fierce shame of AIDS had many families choosing not to be by the side of those dying.” The COVID-19 epidemic is separating families wishing to say their goodbyes today.