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Service in a time of turmoil

June 10, 2020 - 00:00
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Funeral Director Jayson Batiste talks about his experience with handling final arrangements for George Floyd in Minneapolis

  • Service in a time of turmoil
    Lake native Jayson Batiste (second from right) served as one of the funeral directors in charge of the George Floyd memorial service televised nationally from Minneapolis, MN June 4. Courtesy | Demetrios Calhoun Eagle
  • Service in a time of turmoil
    Notable figures in civil rights movements and politics including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., were present at the George Floyd memorial last week. Courtesy | Demetrios Calhoun

George Floyd was a resident of St. Louis Park, MN, at the time of his death, May 25. Floyd died in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. His death was a result of excessive force, and onlookers videotaped the event.

His death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality, particularly against African Americans.

Some protests escalated into riots and fires in some cities across the country.

Jayson Batiste, a 32-year-old licensed funeral director and native of Eagle Lake, watched the outrage unfold on the news along with most of the rest of America.

The 2006 Rice Consolidated High School graduate has worked as a funeral director since he graduated from Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service with an Associate Degree of Applied Science in Funeral Service in 2011.

“Right when all this happened, when the video of Mr. Floyd’s death surfaced, like everybody else, I saw this story in my newsfeed on social media,” Batiste said.

“To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. After I saw it constantly for a day or two, I finally took a look at the story and the entire video, and like most everybody else, I felt a flood of emotions.”

Little did Batiste know, he would soon have an up-close and personal part of this story. He dressed, casketed and cosmetized Floyd’s body for the June 4 public memorial service in Minneapolis, MN.

Batiste has been a licensed funeral director with Troy B. Smith Professional Service Funeral Service in Houston since 2014.

He shares that his friend, fellow funeral director Robert Swearington of Fort Bend Memorial Planning Center, called him Wednesday, June 3, to request his assistance with the Floyd memorial.

“Robert assembled sort of a ‘dream team’ of funeral directors to assist him in Minnesota. When I told him I’d help, I didn’t tell anyone other than my immediate family and my boss where I was going,” Batiste said.

It was a whirlwind three-day assignment. “I had a chapel service in Houston Wednesday morning. I left there and caught a flight to Minnesota. I went straight from the airport to Estes Funeral Home in Minneapolis. I worked there until about 11 p.m. I went to my hotel room, and I was back up and at the funeral home at 7 a.m. Thursday morning to make our way to the memorial venue. We also worked with Buie’s Funeral Home of Raeford, NC. I was back on a plane and home in Houston, working another funeral, Friday,” Batiste recalled.

He didn’t have much time to prepare mentally for the event. “I mean, I knew this was a huge assignment. I don’t take my job lightly, so I certainly knew the magnitude of this service. I was just at home watching news coverage of Mr. Floyd’s death, and then all of a sudden, I’m preparing the body of this man I just read about and saw in the video. I didn’t want to let my friend down, and I didn’t want to let Mr. Floyd’s family down. So for me to be there, I know that had to be God’s plan.”

Batiste shared that it was “an honor and a privilege” to be invited to the event. “Standing by the casket, it was almost like an out of body experience. I realized at that moment that I had taken on the responsibility of working the service of a man killed in such a way that he was. I was amongst some of the most prominent people you could think of: from people like Rev Al Sharpton, Rev. Jessie Jackson, Sr. and Martin Luther King, III to celebrities and musicians. They were all there to pay final respects to Mr. Floyd. It was not a time to be starstruck, because I knew why I was there. The experience was remarkable.”

Reminders of the tension in the Minneapolis area were not infrequent during his time there, Jayson shares. “While I was working on Mr. Floyd’s body, there was a television on in the preparation room. The news was on, and as I was preparing him, I was listening to the news coverage of the incident that ended with Mr. Floyd’s death. The news coverage of this incident up there is very different than it is down here. When I was leaving the funeral home, I had a hard time getting an Uber ride to my room because of the curfews in place. There are armed guards on the corners to enforce the curfew. For several reasons, it was an unforgettable experience.”

Batiste said preparing the bodies of the deceased is “a sacred ritual” for him. “I can’t know what a lot of funeral directors feel, but for me it’s sacred, it’s serious. There are times we have lighthearted moments, but I think we have to do that so that we can stomach the things we see and hear. In preparing Mr. Floyd’s body, I felt a strong wave of sympathy. I couldn’t help but replay the video of his murder in my mind while I was putting his arms into sleeves and his legs into pants.”

While the experience was a career highlight for Batiste, it was a sobering one. “I believe in living and loving. Because of the field I work in, I don’t take life for granted. During the memorial service, we paused for eight minutes, 46 seconds, the amount of time the officer had his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck. Eight minutes, 46 seconds, is a long time. It dawned on me that that man suffered for eight minutes, 46 seconds before he died. I could put a microwave dinner in the microwave, heat it and let it cool in that amount of time. To me, this was a prime example that every second and every minute counts.”

It wasn’t until Friday when Batiste saw an edition of The New York Times that he says the reality of it all sank in for him.

“I purchased a copy of The New York Times and saw my photo! It all just hit me, and tears started to fall.”

It was an unforgettable moment for Batiste both personally and professionally.

“I feel privileged to do something that millions of people, besides myself, could have done. I realize that my grand and great-grandchildren will one day look at photos of me participating in this event. I played a part in this historic time in our society. My boys were so happy when I got home, and my wife told me she was proud. My family and people from my hometown saw me on national television. I am glad I was able to provide service during that time of need despite the circumstances.”