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'I can't hug people.' From visiting to meals, funeral rites still muted by COVID

Coronavirus protocols kept a lot of family and

Coronavirus protocols kept a lot of family and well-wishers from attending the funeral for Laura Frances Ashe at Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Columbia, South Carolina. Ashe had six children, 20 grandchildren, 36 great-grandchildren and nine great-great grandchildren. Credit: TNS / The State/Tracy Glantz

Mother Laura Frances Washington Ashe had been called home, as they say. Sprays of flowers flanked her white coffin, filling the space in front of the altar at Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ministers whom Mother Ashe had worked with and friends she had known for decades spoke, as did one of her daughters, recounting memories of all six children. In her 92 years, Ashe led an impactful life.

Ordinarily hundreds, if not a thousand, mourners would have attended her homegoing. Cousins, extended family and people whose lives she touched would have come from across the country for what would feel like a family reunion.

A funeral is a shared grief, an honor to a life well lived. A good send-off makes a restful spirit.

But in the time of COVID-19, death bears little resemblance to what it has been for generations.

In the South, among Black and white families alike, funerals are a rite as deeply important as birth and marriage. The long-held belief is if you knew the deceased, you not only go to the funeral, you go to the grave site and reception. Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays wrote a book, "Being Dead Is No Excuse," about how Southerners say goodbye. And while much of the book is funny, there is a serious undertone. There are rules, and mourners need fellowship. Without it, grieving is hard.

For a year now and possibly for some time to come, "COVID has affected our entire business," said Greg Jones, general manager of Wood Mortuary in Greer.

Leevy's Funeral Home

Chris Leevy Johnson has been in the mortuary business full time for nearly 25 years, but he's worked at his historic family business, Leevy's Funeral Home, since he was 15.

Never has he had to completely rethink his business as he has during the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting an unseen virus that now, a year after it was first found in South Carolina, medical experts still don't know everything about how to be safe around. Johnson, who contracted COVID last fall, said other staff have gotten it as well. He was out of work for two weeks with moderate symptoms.

And he got it even with the funeral home's extreme safety measures. No longer is there open visiting. No setting up the house with chairs, funeral books and wreaths. No family cars. No hugging — that's what bothers him most.

"I can't hug people I've known all my life and loved," he said.

Johnson said many families have elected to have only a graveside service, something unthinkable pre-COVID. Very few are gathering in a church, and some pastors are not allowing funerals in their churches, many of which still are not having regular in-person services.

He thinks about recent funerals that were a shadow of what they would have been in ordinary times, such as Deacon Calvin "Chip" Jackson, a Richland County Council member. Probably 2,500 people would have attended Jackson's funeral, Johnson estimated. Instead, people watched a livestream video on Facebook. The crush of funerals is so great, Leevy's has two pages on Facebook where people can watch funerals online.

"He did not get the send-off he deserved," said Johnson, describing his business as a sacred ministry.

Mourners have suffered. Where they would normally go to a home or church for a meal provided by friends and fellow parishioners to honor and remember the departed, now they go home to grieve alone.

In January — usually the worst month for deaths in any year, COVID or not — Leevy's Funeral Home held 80 funerals. "I felt like a zombie," Johnson said.

Recently, he arranged the funeral for a man, and the man's wife died the next day. Johnson will not turn a family away. In Black culture, funerals must be done well, or the spirit does not rest, he said.

Wood Mortuary

Jones, who runs Wood Mortuary in the small city of Greer, said he handles a COVID-19 death at least weekly, sometimes daily. Once, they had seven funerals in one day.

The pressure is immense, from safety to serving families properly to running a business with such new and unexpected expenses as personal protective equipment.

Jones said a year ago, when the pandemic began, he gathered his staff and brainstormed everything they needed to do. "We had to figure this out on our own," he said.

They stopped having families come into the office — while trying to make families feel like nothing had changed. That hometown feel was developed 120 years ago by John D. Wood, and losing it was nonnegotiable. Generations of families have turned to Wood.

Jones said the funeral home suspended visiting, although people could come in and sign the guest book. Attendance was limited to 50 people in the chapel.

Many families decided to wait until the pandemic is over for a formal service. After all, Jones said, "We all thought this was going to be over in two weeks." Others waited and then decided the wait was too long and went ahead with the service.

"We're wondering about a wave of memorial services in the future," he said.

Cremations, once not considered by most Southern families, have increased through the years, but COVID forced people to choose cremation more.

Besides service size, there is the concern about keeping everything clean. Even with a limited number of people entering the mortuary, workers fog rooms every day with a disinfecting spray. They wipe all surfaces, including handrails and doorknobs.

Jones has seen husbands, wives and multiple members of a single family die from COVID-19 within a short period. "Most people have been touched," he said.

Livestreamed, distant

At Mother Ashe's funeral in late February, much of what could be considered traditional happened. Gospel music rang through the church. Pastors preached rousing, fiery messages. She wore a fine hat and a lovely dress; her hair and makeup done just so.

Bishop Theodore Jakes reminded people that Ashe had sacrificed much in service of her Lord.

I.S. Leevy Johnson, Chris Leevy Johnson's father who served for 10 years in the state House of Representatives, said, "I am who I am today because Mother Ashe loved me."

Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins presented the family with a proclamation naming that day Laura Ashe Day in Columbia.

Her daughter Frances Ashe-Goins told of her mother's love to shop, especially at Dillard's and Belk, and family time on Sandy Island, where Ashe spent part of her childhood.

Markedly different were the cameras recording the service. The video was streamed on Facebook, where more than 300 people watched. Many commented on Ashe's life and sent messages in the chat room.

And in the pews, friends and family collected in pods, with gaps between them. "It is hard to offer a ministry of comfort by being distant," Johnson said.

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