In Their Own Words: Reflections from the Last Responders

By Jamil Shabazz

In my bedroom, there is an old chifferobe in which I keep artifacts from my past. In the very back of the chifferobe there is a small cardboard box containing a stack of paper memorials—pamphlets from every funeral I have ever attended. I received my first funeral pamphlet on an overcast day in February of 2002. My grandfather Wali Shabazz had passed unexpectedly and I was engulfed in sorrow. The entire funeral is still largely a haze to me, but 18 years later two things stand out vividly in my mind, 1) Nathaniel Black singing with such conviction that my flesh trembled and 2) when it came time to read the obituary I remember hearing a voice filled with poise, authority and compassion. That was my first encounter with Mrs. Lequita J. Taylor. If there was ever anyone who could offer a sea of calm in this COVID-19 crisis it is Lequita and her husband Michael C. Taylor, Sr. who together they own and operate Taylor Funeral and Cremation Services, one of the preeminent African American mortuaries in Colorado. The pair started their business in 2003 with $150 and a prayer, today they are America’s dream, providing continuity and closure to families across the Denver metro area.

Being on the front line of this global pandemic, the Taylors sat down with DUS to discuss the unique experience of being a Last Responder(s).

DUS: Can you guide us through your first Coronavirus call?

MT:  When we got the first COVID case, I was kind of skeptical of it, because COVID-19 hadn’t really hit yet. It was still flu season and the governor hadn’t started locking things down.

LT: We got a call from this young man whose mother was visiting from New York when she passed away [from COVID]; he was trying to get her shipped back to New York. In our process as of one of the first things we have to ask, ‘Is this a COVID case?’ Once he said yes we had to start the process of trying to get the body shipped back to New York and deal with the COVID stuff at the same time. It was hectic, but we were able to get everything worked out for him and his mom.

DUS: What have been some of the adjustments COVID-19 has had on the way funeral services are conducted?

LT: I really need people to understand the seriousness of what is going on with COVID. We have funerals now where only a few people can come, and they are socially distanced in the sanctuary. We also livestream the service, but that’s not the same as being there. Families aren’t getting to love and physically be there in support of each other, like they used to. It’s hard to grieve that way.

DUS: As a family owned and operated business, what steps are you taking to keep your family and employees safe?

MT: Lequita and I had to make some difficult decisions. We’ve had to separate the embalmers and the workers that prep the body, from the people that are on the front line making the arrangements. As the president, it would be reckless to put my wife, my son, my mother, my brother and my goddaughter in the path of avoidable harm.

DUS: As funeral directors, how has COVID-19 impacted you?

LT: We’ve handled 10 COVID deaths so far and we have 30 bodies right now. We usually average about 17 to 18 a month. People are dying all over the country, and it’s tough, because it’s tough on the families. When this COVID really started to spread, Michael and I could see the fear in people. It seemed like almost every day we were getting a death call, and we prayed to God for him to give us direction.

MT: It has affected us because we care about these families and not only have these people suffered a major economic blow most of them now have a catastrophic emotional event to deal with as well. I thank God we’re a family owned funeral home so we can work with them without taking advantage of the situation. I am grateful for what God has allowed us to do for these families. He provided us with the ability to livestream funerals almost five years ago, and we don’t charge a penny for streaming. You can see God had put that in place for this day.

DUS: Knowing what we know about COVID-19 and its impact on the Black community are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

LT: Please keep social distancing, keep doing what you need to do to stay safe and keep your loved ones safe as well. We love you and we’re here to support you.

MT: Pray for us, not just me and Lequita, but all of the last responders all over the country. We ask that everyone continue to lift us up because we’re out here on the battlefield every day.

As we endure this time of uncertainty, we must love, pray and lift everyone up. And meeting the Taylors will be an addition to my chifferobe collection of memories.