Death is All Around in 2020. What Can We Do?

Kendall Harris of Leak and Sons' Funeral Chapels prepares to transport remains to a church for a funeral service April 17, 2020 in Country Club Hills, Illinois. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, funerals are limited to only 10 guests in the chapel or church. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

I left the house for a midday Saturday photo shoot. Late. Damn. Forgot my wallet. Double damn. Then, I noticed my passenger side tire was low on air. Slow leak? I didn’t know, and I wasn’t risking it. It was a sign: stay home.

On average, 38,000 people in America die in car crashes each year. And the way 2020 has played out, with souls getting yanked from this big spinning rock at an alarming rate, I’m not risking anything.

This year, I’ve lost loved ones, and loved ones of loved ones. I've publicly mourned the passing of people I've never met—celebrities—but I celebrate their craft, and therefore celebrate their lives. And I've consumed far too much news about people, many of whom look like me, being killed by law enforcement.

Every time I pick up my phone, someone new has died. It’s not an exaggerated feeling. A lot of people are dying.

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Even if you exclude the over 180,000 people in the US who’ve died of COVID thus far, this year has still had more excess deaths than normal. Excess deaths, or “excess mortality,” describes the number of people dying beyond what’s been predicted.

In an article from last month, Ronald D. Fricker Jr. noted the amount of actual deaths was at least 164,937 deaths above the expected count during the period of January 2020 through the start of August. Fricker, an Associate Dean of Virginia Tech College of Science, explained that if you were to subtract the deaths tagged as COVID-19-related, it still leaves over 16,000 deaths above the norm. In explaining the cause of those 16,000 deaths, Fricker writes, “COVID-19 deaths could be being undercounted, or the pandemic could also be causing increases in other types of death. It’s probably some of both.”

No matter the cause, clear across the board, the CDC is reporting a higher number of deaths this year than usual.

The numbers are more than numbers. They’re a point of entry into understanding the mind-state that comes with not being able to mourn a death properly and fully before hearing word of another death. A drowning of a college friend followed that same week by the homicide of another. The unexpected passing of a friend’s father—the same friend who taught me about aspects of fatherhood. All of a sudden, for me, death seems ever-present.

The work of being a journalist doesn’t help the cause. Tragic deaths are a normal part of the news cycle; you’re not supposed to be personally impacted.

But then came the death of Chadwick Boseman, and it wasn't just about Black Panther. Here's a guy who graduated from the same institution of higher learning I did, and went on to tell stories of Black folks, like I do. As a Black male artist, I felt him. Not that I was looking for role models or anything, but I’ll admit now that after being assigned to review 42, the biopic of Jackie Robinson, I was compelled to take a movie poster home from the Jack London Square movie theatre lobby.

Terrence Bardney of Leak and Sons' Funeral Chapels carries flowers from the chapel following a service on April 16, 2020 in Country Club Hills, Illinois.
Terrence Bardney of Leak and Sons' Funeral Chapels carries flowers from the chapel following a service on April 16, 2020 in Country Club Hills, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

That idea of identifying with people who die is terrifying. That’s why the filmed shootings of Black people—men, women, trans or other—make me feel like a portion of myself has died, or will die soon.

It’s the sensation of impending doom, like the sword of Damocles is constantly suspended over my dome; I think about death every time I leave home. So this weekend I stayed at the crib.

Still, despite taking a bath to relax, I found myself gravitating toward the subject of death. I listened to the “Eulogy” clip from Richard Pryor's  “ … Is It Something I Said?” 1975 standup. I slapped Tupac’s “Death Around the Corner.” Re-read the circumstances around Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes’ death. Looked back at stories from 2006, the year Oakland had over 145 homicides—that was the first time I rationally felt the sensation of impending doom.

And I asked parent-Twitter if they had made it through this year without crying in front of their kids. The underlying notion being: crying is often the manifestation of the sadness that comes with the mourning process; and maybe even connected to further acknowledgement of your own mortality—which is a hard discussion when you’re looking in the face of your offspring.

I got hella responses to my somewhat rhetorical question. Just about every answer was “no.” People without kids said they teared up in front of their pets. Some folks said they cried for the first time last week.

But overall, a lot of people openly acknowledged being sad. And with deaths in this country through the roof, I’d be a fool to think I’m the only one grieving.

Wearing a John Lewis mask, Marion Glaser travelled from Mississippi to view the funeral procession of civil rights icon, former US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) on July 26, 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama.
Wearing a John Lewis mask, Marion Glaser travelled from Mississippi to view the funeral procession of civil rights icon, former US Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) on July 26, 2020 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

I needed some advice from a pro on this topic. Enter Angela Hennessy, a visual artist and associate professor at California College of the Arts, where she teaches classes on “cultural narratives of death and contemporary art.” When asked how she identifies herself, Hennessy says, “I’m a survivor.”

In 2015 Hennessy was shot in the midst of trying to stop an assault. She tells me she’s been thinking about her own mortality ever since.

“Being aware of one’s mortality, and to let that impact the decisions we make on the day-to-day basis, that’s normal,” says Hennessy. “That knowledge has an impact on how you look into a loved one’s eyes.”

Angela Hennessy's work is informed by a deep understanding of mortality.
Angela Hennessy's work is informed by a deep understanding of mortality. (Instagram/Angela Hennessy)

Hennessy says that people on their deathbed don’t question if they did “all the work” they were supposed to; they question if they loved, and if they were loved. “Death has a way of resetting priorities,” says Hennessy, lightening the tone of the conversation.

So are we, collectively, having a massive resetting of priorities right now?

Given this year’s public response to the systematic and individualized disregard for the lives of humans who are different than those who’ve traditionally held power in this land called America, it’s clear something is changing.

A metaphorical death, of sorts. And a new beginning? I hope so, and Hennessy somewhat agrees. But she notes that it leaves the question: if we’re living at a time when there is great transition, be it social change or people individually changing en masse, what’s our responsibility?

“That’s what I’m asking myself all the time,” says Hennessy, noting that in effort to find the answer, she often turns to rituals, altars and verbally acknowledging those who’ve passed.

“Death is everywhere, all the time. But we’ve got to see it,” says Hennessy. She uses the lifecycle of plants to exemplify the presence of death. At the same time, plants show us the presence of life as well. And that aids her understanding of how to proceed in this world. Hennessy says, “That’s why I choose the color palettes I do—to engage with my ancestors. To let them know I’m here.” She tells me, “Some people run towards death, some people run away from it.”

Anglea Henessy, 'Mourning Wreath,' (detail), 2017. Synthetic and human hair, found hair, artist’s hair, gold leaf on copper, enamel paint, chain, wire frame, and cement base.
Anglea Henessy, 'Mourning Wreath,' (detail), 2017. Synthetic and human hair, found hair, artist’s hair, gold leaf on copper, enamel paint, chain, wire frame, and cement base. (Courtesy Angela Henessy)

Death is a part of life. That’s not a new concept to me, but it’s maybe something I’d forgotten because of the overwhelming amount of deaths in my circle this year. But I know balance exists in this universe.

Evidence isn’t just in Angela’s comments. It’s in the report from the CDC that even with the high number of deaths in the United States this year, the amount of babies born will be greater than the number of people who pass. And that trend is expected to continue for some years to come.

It’s comforting to know the cycle of life is doing as it should. It’s reminiscent of that scene in Black Panther, when King T’Chaka spoke to his son King T’Challa from the afterlife:

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“A man who has not prepared his child for his own death has failed as a father. Have I ever failed you?”