Voices of Funeral Service, Virginia

In Norfolk, the Grave Family openly discussed how the Chesapeake Bay Boating Disaster of 1955 catapulted their business to where it is today. A schooner named the Levin J. Marvel capsized in the Chesapeake Bay near the town of North Beach, Maryland. The ship sought shelter from Hurricane Connie in Herring Bay during a weeklong adventure cruise that became deadly. Ultimately, a significant number of Black people that worked in the shipyard died. Amid racial segregation, several families in the area needed funerary assistance. From here, the Graves Funeral Home established a trusted connection with Black communities in the Norfolk and quickly became known for their extensive pre-planning for end-of-life care, grief support, and legal and estate guidance. Currently US academic research on the intersection of race/racism, disaster, and economic growth has tended to focus primarily on Hurricane Katrina and urban spatial development of New Orleans thereafter. Not only could our research benefit from extending the analysis of disaster across cities but from the Graves family, one may also want to consider the following: When and how does the question of disaster appear in histories of the Black funeral home?  

When and how does the question of disaster appear in histories of the Black funeral home?

Disaster and catastrophe rarely exist in isolation, often structured by long-term socio-economic transformation, and consolidated through a punctuated moment of continuity. Though the novel coronavirus was surely a historic moment for our shareable world, one that dramatically reshaped our everyday life with mask-wearing, social distance, increased reliance of technological communication, and more, it was not the ‘beginning’ of all injustice. The pandemic merely exposed, brought to surface, and exacerbated the existing inequities produced by racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, xenophobia, to name a few. COVID-19 has taken a disproportionate toll on Black communities and unsurprisingly, that trend has largely remained consistent. At the same time, it is crucial that we attend to the specificities of cities. At the moment, there is a serious lack of research on how the pandemic reshaped everyday life in Norfolk. 

Broadly, climate change and sea level rise have increased the frequency and severity of flooding in several coastal communities. Although large disaster flooding from a coastal storm or hurricane has often received public attention, chronic low-level inundation can also prompt a serious disruption to transportation, property, and public health. In Norfolk alone, there has been a 325 percent increase in nuisance flooding since 1960, ranking in the top ten of US cities with an increase in high-tide flooding (NOAA, 2017). Under the guiding principle that disaster intensifies violence and harm, I would like to pose a more niche question concerning the nature of catastrophe: When and how does the spatial-temporal condition of a city become relevant for the Black funeral home? Flooding has killed 8 million people in the last century and though a flood may not regularly lead to immediate death, both infrastructure and place become a critical entry point for understanding the experience of COVID-19, especially against the possibility that histories of the Black funeral home can, in fact, be situated amidst disaster.  

~Pyar Seth

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