Funerals During COVID-19: Death and Isolation

By Vivian Shipe

KNOXVILLE, TN — By tradition, a Black funeral has been a time of gathering. People hug each other. The holding of each other is therapeutic. Re-pass is an opportunity for everyone to come by, a time of  gathering together for a meal, to stop and visit and remember the loved one who has passed on. But now, and for awhile and into the future, the healing power of touching is prohibited. 

COVID-19 stopped all of that.

“Its a hard time, a truly scary time.” These are the words of  Beal Bourne, funeral director of Jarnigan and Son Mortuary, the oldest black business in Knoxville. The funeral home, which opened in 1886, served the community during the 1918 pandemic. Bourne, a former history teach says, “It was scary then, its scary now, this is different,” says Beal. “This is a worldwide nightmare you can’t wake up from and it’s not a movie you can turn off.” Trying to serve families during their time of pain and keep everyone safe is difficult for this funeral director of over 40 years.

With COVID-19 comes restrictions by the state funeral boards that mortuaries must adhere to. To violate these laws is to take a chance on citations. Funeral homes like Jarnigan’s are working hard to meet these demands and still serve the families as best they can. Using technology is one tool they have set into motion.

For now, Beal and his staff meet with the families and reminds them during the planning stage of the social distancing rules and the ten people maximum in the sanctuary. People are surprised to learn this includes the preacher doing the eulogy and the funeral attendants. This is a hard moment for the families. “It is hard to tell that parent you can’t be near your child,” says Beal.

Should the family agree to these stipulations, Beal has set up a visitation in the chapel the day before the funeral. This time period is usually several hours long, giving family and the public time to come by, pay their respects,  view the body and sign the book; all the time keeping social distancing rules of six feet in place. There is no hugging, 

Jarnigan’s has also added live streaming of the actual funeral on Facebook so those family, church, and community members who are not part of the ten, can join in virtually. Beal has suggested the families prepare a memorial service or a dove lease at a later date, after the curve flattens and the people can once again gather. Due to the number of deaths during this period, Bourne even suggests churches hold a large afternoon of rejoicing and thanksgiving once again, after the shelter in place lifts, to celebrate all those who they have lost.

The virus has caused other problems that caring funeral directors such as Bourne have stepped up to try to assist. The need for funeral clothing as some families do not have burial clothing. Others traditionally have gone and bought outfits to bury their loved ones in. With all retail stores closed, Jarnigans has provided what they can and have even gone out and purchased beautiful items from Cracker Barrel.

There has also been a new question added when bodies are picked up from hospitals and nursing homes. In order to isolate and prepare the body; the mortuary must now ask, “Was this a COVID-19  death?” While there have only been four deaths in Knoxville, Beal explains there is a separate preparation room in the morgue for those bodies should they receive that type of call. In some of the larger cities, some funeral homes will not take the bodies and there are some places with so many deaths, there is no where to take the bodies to.

When asked if there was anything Beal would tell families, he had this to say. “Knoxville has been blessed. Take time to pray. Take care of the other side of death. Love your people while they are here. Make good of this isolation time. Be in contact with your loved ones. See if they need anything. You don’t know when your last day will be.” Bourne added, “COVID is bringing folks together.”

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