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No Time to Grieve: COVID-19 Has Changed Funerals and Mourning

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It could be the high-profile deaths of African American cultural icons like Little Richard, Andre Harrell or Betty Wright, who all left us recently, or the peaceful passing of a well-known local activist or the sudden death of a close family member.

COVID-19 has changed the way death hits us, and the ways we mourn and memorialize people we respect and love.

Funeral homes across the United States and here in California are taking extraordinary steps to maintain the safety of their staff, mourners, and the general public. They are also going the extra mile to console families having to deal with the loss of a relative while accepting the grim reality of not being able to hold a traditional funeral — all the while doing everything they can to keep their businesses profitable.

“My husband wasn’t embalmed. They put him in a plastic bag and then put him a casket,” said Margo Rose Brunson, a resident of Sacramento, who lost her husband, Charles L. Brunson, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, to COVID-19 on April 13.

Brunson said she understands that there was nothing the funeral home or the cemetery could do to accommodate the end-of-life arrangements she had planned for her husband. Charles Brunson, who died at 76, was also fighting pneumonia as well as recurring health complications due to stroke and hypertension.

The Brunsons were the co-founders of the Sacramento Branch of the Black Panther Party (BPP), which was in operation from 1968 to 1970. They were also good friends of Bobby Seale, the well-known political activist, Oakland 1973 mayoral candidate, and co-founder of the national arm of BPP with Huey P. Newton. Brunson’s service, handled by Morgan Jones Funeral Home in Sacramento, lasted no more than seven minutes, and the 10 people who attended the burial stayed in their cars.

“In the African-American community, there are so many rituals we all know when it comes to funerals — to burying our people, family members and friends we love,” says Mark McKay, owner and operator of McKay’s Mortuaries in Southern California.  He says, so far, he has handled several cases of COVID-19 deaths. McKay’s has locations both in the Los Angeles area and in the Inland Empire.

“It is difficult. People are taking this hard. Imagine crying and having to look in the other direction because you’re making these unusual home going service plans,” he said.  For some families whose relatives die of COVID-19, there are “no services, no prayers. They take them straight from the hospital to the cemetery and put them in the ground – or they go to a crematory and burn the bodies.”

Most Black funeral homeowners say they have seen sharp dips in their revenues since most of their customers no longer need auxiliary services like limousine rentals and other costs associated with funeral services.

Funeral homes across California have adopted technologies like Zoom and other streaming services to allow families to watch funeral services remotely online.

For families everywhere in the world, the coronavirus crisis has complicated dying, grieving and funeral services. Across the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people keep a safe distance of six feet between them to avoid spreading or contracting the virus. The state has ordered that no more than 10 people can assemble for a public gathering.

In California, there are 66,680 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the California Department of Public Health. So far, the disease has caused the deaths of  2,657 people. More than 260 of the deceased are Black Californians.

Mortician Albert Tillman in Riverside says he approaches funeral services with a sense of duty, but he constantly has to steel his nerves because he’s always thinking about the safety of his 19 employees and guests who attend viewings at this funeral home.

“We sanitize all the time. We follow CDC guidelines. We wear masks,” says Tillman, who does not embalm any bodies of people who died from COVID-19. “What scares me most is the unknown. We just don’t know enough about this virus, that’s why I don’t make decisions that might endanger my staff and the community.”

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