Leiden Anthropology Blog

The Price of Death: Life Insurance in Black New Orleans

The Price of Death: Life Insurance in Black New Orleans

Funeral directors probably know better than anyone that as long as we live, we are certainly going to die. Yet, for some, death may come at too high a price. How do people reckon financially with the biological fact of their mortality?

‘Burial market’ in New Orleans

In the early stages of my year-long fieldwork project, filmmaker Brechtje Boeke and I made a short documentary on what is known as the ‘burial market’ of the life insurance industry in New Orleans. Life insurance promises to pay out a death benefit to your beneficiaries after you die. Poor and working-class African Americans often take out small policies of up to about 50,000 dollars with the main purpose of covering final expenses.

While this might sound like a straightforward financial arrangement, its everyday manifestation is fascinating and complex. The documentary gives insight into some of its dynamics.

Paying for a good death

The film shows, for instance, that life insurance is tied up with cultural notions of dying well: a good death requires preparation. Historically, both families and communities made careful arrangements for the end of life, making sure there was enough money to pay for a proper burial and home-going celebration when their members died. 

Society tomb of Les Demoiselles Sincère in St. Louis Cemetery #2.
This African American mutual aid society used to provide crypts for paid-up members (photo by Brechtje Boeke). 

These responsibilities, however, are often difficult to keep up today. Violent crime, structural racism, and high mortality tear apart the social fabric of poor and Black communities. The city of New Orleans has some of the highest murder and poverty rates of the United States, and this affects the ways in which some insurance companies service their clients. 

People thus often scramble for funds at a time of mourning, especially when money is running low and death comes unexpectedly or frequently.

The Price of Death: Life Insurance in Black New Orleans

Listen to funeral directors, policyholders, a historian and a community activist as they share their experiences and knowledge of the costs of death and ways to pay them.

This documentary is part of the ongoing ethnographic fieldwork by Nikki Mulder on death and life insurance among African Americans in New Orleans, USA. The research is part of the Moralising Misfortune project, principal investigator Erik Bähre, funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (Grant Agreement No. 682467).

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