My mom’s remains—long overdue since her death in January, and now scheduled to arrive at my door at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in February—encountered one more delay when the mortuary director called to say she’d been rear-ended in a traffic accident and needed to reschedule for Wednesday.
“I’m OK,” LaRuth Wright reassured me. “I just need a day, y’know, to take it easy.”
Glad she was OK, I said, but how was my mom doing?
“Now you’re making me laugh,” she said, her voice softly breaking with the kind of relief that comes only at the most brittle edge of that stressful place we’ve all been lately.
Founder and CEO of White Diamond Funeral Services in Beverly Hills, Wright has been concerned with the mortal tasks of the afterlife for 20 years, but nothing in her experience prepared her for COVID-19 and its toll on the living and the dead. The pandemic has taken her business and the entire mortuary industry in Los Angeles to an unprecedented level, with the recently deceased stacked up in freezers across L.A. County like rush hour on the 405 and city skies thicker by the day with smoke from burning bodies.
That legally regulated thanatosphere orbiting more densely at the pandemic’s peak due to orders from the South Coast Air Quality Management District lifting restrictions on the number of cremations permitted daily, now includes my 94-year-old mother. The assisted living facility where she resided amiably for five years with worsening dementia, held the virus at bay longer than many institutions. My last visit in December—a 15-minute encounter allowed only in the lobby, distanced beyond my mom’s poor hearing range, and in masked confusion to her failing eyesight—was deeply unsatisfactory, but what can anybody do? Across the country and around the world, that’s how it is these sorrowful days. A few weeks later, the insidious plague slipped through all defenses, first clouding my mother’s lungs with pneumonia, reducing her oxygen level, and tapering her appetite to nothing, and finally adding the Brooklyn College graduate, retired second-grade teacher, wife of a decorated WWII flyer, and mother of two grown sons to the grim statistics.
That’s when Wright took over. Born in South Central to parents who’d come up from Louisiana in the Great Black Migration of the 1940s to find wartime employment in Southern California’s booming aerospace industry, the 50-ish graduate of Thomas Jefferson High in L.A. began her career selling “pre-need” mortgage insurance. In case of death, homeowners wanted to guarantee their mortgages were paid off, so adding pre-need funeral insurance to further ease the family’s burden was an easy sale. Wright moved on to selling plots for Inglewood Park Cemetery but soon noticed that cremation offered a cheaper alternative to traditional burials. She signed on with Neptune Society, a national leader in cremation services, but after five years selling Neptune’s prepaid, immediate-need cremation packages (starting at about $2,000), Wright struck out on her own.
“I saw how I could present the same services for a fraction of the cost,” she says. Indeed, she’d latched onto a trend; 54.6 percent of all U.S. deaths in 2019 resulted in cremation, a 7.6 percent growth from 2014 to 2019, according the Cremation Association of North America. Wright opened her Wilshire Boulevard office in 2011 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony held by the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce, for which she has served as an official ambassador and entrepreneurial exemplar: a born-and-bred L.A. success story.
Wright would see COVID’s one-two punch to the Black community borne out by the statistics, both local and national.
Despite the upscale address where she oversees a staff of four, Wright stays connected to South Central where she grew up and where the coronavirus impact has been “horrible,” she says. After providing funeral services for a part of L.A. that has already seen more than its fair share of mortality due to gang warfare, police-involved killings, and the highest health-related death rate in the county, Wright would see COVID’s one-two punch to the Black community borne out by the statistics, both local and national.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in April 2020 found that 33 percent of hospitalized patients with COVID were Black, although they made up just 18 percent of the community being evaluated in the study. CDC experts cite three reasons for this, including preexisting conditions (such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity) suffered disproportionately by the African American community; jobs in the public-service sector requiring greater exposure to the disease by communities of color; and “structural inequities and social determinants of health that are influenced by implicit bias and racial discrimination,” such as less access to health care.
The pandemic death rate for the Black community in California is 8 percent higher than the overall statewide rate, according to the California Department of Health. Another way to say it is the case rate for Californians with median incomes of less than $40,000 is 38 percent higher than statewide rates. (This factor cuts across all communities of color, with the COVID death rate for Latinos 21 percent higher than statewide.) As of mid-February, out of L.A. County’s ten million residents, just 7 percent of the Black community 65 years old and older had been vaccinated with shot number one, compared with 17 percent of white seniors. “We’re alarmed by the disproportionality we’re seeing in who has received the vaccine,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer in a public statement.
In general, while I was still waiting for my mother’s remains nearly a month after her demise, L.A. County’s overall positivity rate hovered at 19 percent.
The hospice agency tending to my mother in her last days called me when she’d been found in her room unresponsive. They recommended White Diamond for mortuary services. After pronouncement of death at a late hour, White Diamond dispatched drivers in hazmat suits to the assisted living facility to take possession of the body—what they call in the business, a “removal.” I was invited by the hospice agency to be present, but I declined. What would I be permitted to safely see, given all coronavirus precautions, even while venturing at my own risk into the hot zone that had killed my mother? I could almost hear her Brooklyn-accented voice: “Oy, don’t bother.” So I put my trust in White Diamond and waited to hear from them.
My mother had died during the peak season for funeral directors. “November, December, January is when people normally die the most,” says Wright, attributing that fact to holiday stress. The 2020-21 numbers were “extremely high,” she says, and so she’s turning away business. But she’s still looking after four to five of “my families” each week and mostly working from home or her office, using DocuSign to gather electronic signatures on required legal certifications.
Colleagues in the business share her experience. “From December through January, we’ve had a 30 to 35 percent increase in our business,” says Walker Posey, a fourth-generation funeral director in North Augusta, Georgia, who is also a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association. The archives at Posey Funeral Directors, founded in 1879, record earlier pandemics, including the influenza epidemic of 1918. “This is no flu,” says Posey. “We’ve seen losses of up to five family members, ages 40 to 90.” While business is up, he says, revenues are undercut by the costs of PPE, hiring additional staff, and allowing mental health breaks for employees. “It’s taking a personal toll,” he says.
“I’m drained,” Wright confides in a phone call one evening after work. “But I have to take time off for self-care. After five, I bring it on and fill my cup!” In the background, I hear young voices. “My grandkids,” she says. She’s got two grown children and a full house in Hermosa Beach where she also looks after her 97-year-old father. Wright vacations in spring and summer, jetting to Aruba, Cancún, or Cabo, but her usual getaway was canceled in the wake of COVID’s tidal wave of death.
White Diamond’s business comes mainly from referrals from hospice agencies like Faith & Hope, Angeles Vista, and Roze Room. Cremations are arranged exclusively with a San Fernando Valley crematorium where family members normally come by to pick up remains. Wright explains that an unfortunate outbreak of COVID among the employees, contracted from one of their clients’ visiting mourners, had shut down on-site pickups, making home delivery the only option. It’s something Wright normally doesn’t do. But for now she’s crisscrossing L.A., listening to motivational podcasts (she likes The Game of Life and How to Play It by Florence Scovel Shinn), with the recently deceased on the seat next to her.
Which is how I met her on a Wednesday morning as she parked her blue Prius outside my front door and emerged, masked and carrying a black velour bag containing an 8-by-6-by-4-inch box labeled with my mom’s name. After signing papers attesting to the facts of her cremation as presented, I accepted the box. Once Wright assists with the necessary permits, obsequies will be conducted at the VA cemetery in Riverside where my mom’s ashes will be interred next to my father’s. All this according to final instructions that she prepared with the purposefulness and attention to detail in matters of death befitting the strongly independent and professional woman she’d been all her life.
I like to think she and Wright would have enjoyed meeting one another.
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