From the pandemic to BLM, Lauren Gee stood for the afflicted
In the spring, Lauren Gee was making regular trips back and forth between Connecticut and New York transporting the dead as the director of her family's funeral home.
The death toll in New York City from the coronavirus pandemic was overwhelming funeral homes and morgues where bodies were piling up. New York funeral homes made pleas to their counterparts in neighboring states for help.
Gee, funeral director at Lester Gee Funeral Home in New London, volunteered to transport bodies from New York to the funeral home’s crematory in Connecticut.
“It was scary,” Gee said during a recent phone interview. “If you don’t agree with (face) masks, you’re talking to the wrong person. I’ve seen firsthand what that body count looks like. I’ve seen firsthand the numbers you see on the news.”
Months later, Gee was still driving a hearse, but this time bearing the names of Black victims of police brutality to local racial justice demonstrations.
“Every name on the hearse I looked up,” Gee said. “I became invested. I had to pull myself away. It’s very easy to take on other people’s trauma.”
Gee, who is biracial, is still haunted by the names — the well publicized like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and those lesser known such as 7-year-old Aiyana Mo’nay Stanley-Jones, whom police mistakenly shot and killed during a raid in Detroit in 2010, and 93-year-old Pearlie Golden, who was shot by a police officer outside her Texas home.
She said she ran out of room on the hearse before she ran out of names.
“There’s no reason why any family should have to suffer because someone decided their life was more important than another’s,” she said.
Gee is on the front lines of death, a perspective she thinks is missing from the conversations surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.
While she describes herself as a “behind-the-scenes” person who has felt the need to stay neutral at times given her work, the events of this year pushed her to speak up.
“Why do I have to remain neutral because of my position? Why should I have to remain neutral about racism when we all know it exists?” she said.
That’s the image she wants to portray, Gee said, “that I will stand up for my community.”
'Not a place for women'
Gee, a 35-year-old mother of two sons, was adopted around the age of 11 by Lester and Mary Gee. The family lived above the funeral home on Blinman Street — an experience, Gee said, that didn’t help her make a lot of friends growing up.
“I was bad juju,” she said. “I maybe had two, three friends who came to the funeral home.”
Gee now lives in Waterford but said she'll always consider New London home.
Growing up in a funeral home gave her a unique perspective on death. While her father let her and her sister, Maegan, "roam around downstairs" and welcomed conversations about death, her mother tried to "shield us from that."
"It definitely played a key role in my understanding different perceptions of death," she said.
Gee joked that she bullied her way into the family business started by her father in 1971.
“My dad comes from a generation where only men are funeral directors. It’s not a place for women. Women were just supposed to be smiling faces at the front of a desk,” she said. "I don't come from that generation."
She had to show that she was valuable, that she could work in the embalming room, that she could lift a casket.
The pandemic, which has killed more than 300,000 Americans, has had a profound impact on the funeral industry, in terms of the number of people who have died, but also by how people are able to mourn their loved ones with restrictions curtailing how many people can gather at services.
Lillard Lewis, Gee’s mentor and a licensed embalmer from Windsor, said Gee has adapted to the pandemic’s restrictions, finding ways to ensure families are still able to honor their loved ones.
“I look at her like a colleague now, not a student, someone who I can learn from,” he said.
As he’s told her over the years, “you don’t wake up one day and say, 'I want to be a funeral director.' It’s a ministry. You’re called to it.”
This is not Gee’s first time helping families through a pandemic. Gee’s sister, Maegan Parrott, said Gee has also helped families who’ve lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic. She’s also been a part of the conversations on how to combat the epidemic and how to aid those struggling with addiction.
While Gee stepped out from behind the scenes to take a stand against racial injustice, her involvement in the community spans years, her sister said.
Politics might be next
Lester Gee, whose clients are primarily Black and Puerto Rican, has funeral homes in Bridgeport and New London. While the New London location has largely been spared from many coronavirus-related deaths, Gee said at the Bridgeport location, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, "It felt like every case was COVID-related."
Even before the pandemic, Gee felt that more conversations about death were needed.
“Not a lot of people welcome conversations about death. A lot of people avoid it. We all try to keep it at a distance," she said. "I wish we had navigated some of these conversations before the pandemic."
In the future, she'd like to hold workshops in the community to help facilitate those discussions because "just as we prepare for birth, we should prepare for passing," she said.
Gee's dad, who grew up in the South, has told her stories of times when death wasn't so far away, of embalming bodies on kitchen tables because Black people could not own funeral homes at the time.
Today, Lester Gee, who is in his 80s and is still involved in the family business, is the only Black funeral director in New London County — a legacy his daughter does not take lightly.
"When my father moved to the area, there was no representation to ensure our families weren’t receiving scraps," she said. "A lot of time, families didn’t realize they had access to dignified services."
As for what's next for Gee, she said she might explore running for political office locally. While her work schedule and raising two sons as a single mother might mean she's not always on the "front lines of protest," she plans on becoming more active behind the scenes.
"Regardless if my movement is in city government or with our families that we serve, at the end of the day, I want to serve our community and I want to make sure they're able to be served in the way they deserve," she said.