“People Are Just Disappearing”: Life, Death and Grief in the Bronx in the Time of COVID


May 16, 2020

First, COVID-19 claimed 43-year-old Crystal Barkley’s life in a Bronx hospital before her five children had the chance to say goodbye.

Then, it denied her family the chance to find closure at a funeral service.

“You don’t expect to lose a family member so suddenly, and then you can’t go the normal way of putting them to rest,” Crystal’s sister, Denise, tells reporter Anjali Tsui. 

Today’s new episode of “Covering Coronavirus” explores how, as COVID-19 swells the ranks of the dead, the highly contagious disease is also upending how loved ones grieve.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Bronx, New York City’s poorest borough, and the home of the most impoverished congressional district in the country. It’s been seeing the city’s highest rate of coronavirus deaths in what experts say is a reflection of entrenched racial and social disparities. 

For weeks, Anjali has been following the story there of how COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting black and Hispanic people. She’s been recording inside a family-run funeral home that is trying to help families navigate their grief — while facing backlogs of both bodies and paperwork, and the threat of becoming infected themselves. 

“Funeral directors are really like another kind of first responder,” Anjali tells me.   

In today’s episode, you’ll hear from Sheila and Cheryl Newkirk, sisters who run the Herbert T. McCall Funeral Home in the Bronx. You’ll meet Erik Frampton, who worked as an art framer before the pandemic dried up his business; he then took a job helping to transfer the dead from a Bronx hospital onto freezer trucks that serve as temporary morgues. (“I’ve never touched a dead body before, but now I’ve handled at least 240 of them,” he tells Anjali.)

And you’ll hear about the chaos of death and grief in the Bronx in the time of COVID from bereaved family members — like Denise Barkley, and like Madelon Kendricks, whose godmother Alpha Crawford was a longtime community activist. Crawford died at age 97 in a Bronx nursing home with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Madelon is still waiting to receive Alpha’s ashes, her grief compounded by the fact that the large and lively church funeral she says her godmother would have wanted isn’t possible right now.

“When people die, they need to be celebrated and there is no celebration of life right now,” Madelon says. “It’s like people are just disappearing.”

For the full story, listen to “Covering Coronavirus: Life & Death in the Bronx” on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, and read Anjali’s accompanying text story.

Thank you for listening and reading.

Raney Aronson-Rath

Raney Aronson-Rath, Executive Producer, FRONTLINE



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