How Can Immigrants Die With Dignity During a Pandemic?

Covid-19 has robbed many immigrant families of the right to be buried in a way consistent with their values and traditions

A darkish image of a cobblestone path to a graveyard.

I was about nine years old when my grandmother first took me to her burial plot. She and my grandfather had scraped together enough money to buy one of the last remaining plots in the cemetery in our town in the Dominican Republic. Soon thereafter, that cemetery ran out of plots, and the dead were taken to another town for burial. But my grandmother was fortunate. With the help of her adult children, she had secured a final resting place for herself and my grandfather.

The plot was large enough that two other members of our family would also rest there someday. On my first visit, my grandparents talked about who might ultimately need to use those two extra spaces and the importance of their being together eternally. This is the first time I remember learning the lesson of the importance of death as something we plan and prepare for — of death as sacred.

I was only half listening at the time. Mostly, I was bewildered by the cemetery itself. It seemed enormous to my small frame. But it only had one road inside of it — an entrance that doubled as the exit. The road was wide enough for a vehicle, but it only went the length of the cemetery; after that, people would need to walk either toward the right or the left to visit their loved one’s grave site.

Space was of the essence, this was clear, but my jaw dropped when I realized how close together the stones were to one another. Without a road or even a walking path traversing east to west, visitors were forced to walk over graves in order to reach their destination. There was no other way. I remember how carefully I stepped over these graves. I’d internalized the message that the dead are to be honored, cherished, and protected. I wondered why anyone would want to rest in such crowded quarters where the stones seemed almost on top of each other.

I see these cultural traditions of death disrupted for more and younger members of our community who are losing their lives to Covid-19.

More than a decade later, when my grandmother died, I went back to that cemetery alongside the other members of my family and half of our town to bring her to her final resting spot. Burying the dead in my town is very different from any funeral I have ever attended in the United States. When someone I loved died, I watched everyone come together. The body would first be kept in a casket inside the home, where community members would come within hours to pay their respect. When my grandmother died, we had to set up additional chairs in rows immediately outside of the home in the adjacent carport. We rented a tent for the street where we lined even more chairs. We ran out of space for the many people who came to pay their respects.

Later, we, the family and community members, had a full procession to the cemetery, where we said goodbye. For nine days thereafter, the family remained together in mourning in my grandmother’s home. We cooked. We sang songs. We prayed, and we cried. For nine days, everything stopped. This is a custom called la novena, and to have done anything different would have been to disrespect the memory of the person we all held in the highest regard.

All these years later, I find myself returning to my grandmother’s death because I see these cultural traditions of death disrupted for more and younger members of our community who are losing their lives to Covid-19. Today, my immigrant family mostly lives in New York City, in the Bronx where Latinxs have been hit hard by this virus. My heart aches for those who’ve died, not only because their lives were taken too soon but also because this public health crisis has robbed them of the right to be buried in a way consistent with their values and traditions.

Is there a way to dignify these unexpected deaths when the community cannot come together?

First-generation immigrants in New York City almost always prefer that their bodies be returned to the island to rest on their families’ plots. Those living on the island await these returns so that they can comply with the tradition of visiting their grave weekly — cleaning the space, placing fresh flowers there, praying, and remembering. I no longer wonder why my grandparents thought it important to rest in that cemetery. Now, I visit it every time I’m on the island and am strangely comforted when I see the plots of former neighbors, extended family, or community leaders I’ve known over the years. It helps me feel they are not alone.

Last month, I learned that one member of my immigrant community died of Covid-19 in the Bronx and was cremated — a tradition my loved ones have always described as barbaric. But in this new Covid-19 reality, what choices are there? Especially in a city hit as hard as New York. In an immigrant community that has endured so many of its blows. What choices are there to die with dignity for the immigrant working poor with little financial resources, inadequate access to health care, and elevated risk of exposure?

I don’t even know what dying with dignity in the United States looks like for my immigrant community — funeral homes, wakes with set hours, refrigerated trucks hoarding bodies outside of hospitals, cemeteries that look and feel sterile in comparison to what I’ve known. Is there a way to dignify these unexpected deaths when the community cannot come together for la novena? When there are no processions? When the others who lie next to you in the cemetery have names that do not exist in your native language?

This virus has raised havoc for us all and forced us to reconsider our grieving traditions.

I can’t stop thinking about these questions. As I’ve watched this public health crisis grow worse and more complicated, I can’t stop thinking about the living family of the dying, immigrant, working-poor residents of the Bronx. How might they reconcile the inadequate choices they face? How would I if someone close to me were to succumb to Covid-19?

This virus has raised havoc for us all and forced us to reconsider the goals of our grieving traditions. If the goals are to emotionally support the living, perhaps we can innovate creative ways to garner this support. But if the goal is to honor the dead, how can we succeed when all the options involve disposing of those who’ve passed in a manner inconsistent with our cultures?

I’m guessing most of us have not yet begun to feel the trauma of these impossible choices. We are much too occupied with obtaining masks and hand sanitizer and checking our temperatures regularly. But soon, this is going to hurt so much more than I think most of us are prepared to bear.

Let’s be gentle. Live with compassion and love with forgiveness.

I am a queer, woman of color, scholar-activist. writing about parenting, loving, forgiving and struggle

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