By Jason James
(Trice Edney Wire) – Evelyn Lorraine Miller, the 83-year-old “Madea of the family,” as her daughter calls her, never missed a family event, especially for her grandchildren. She saved the programs of each graduation or play.
An entrepreneur who sold ices in her East Brooklyn neighborhood, she instilled in her family the importance of independence and self-reliance. Nicknamed “Ms. E” by her neighbors, Evelyn was as passionate about baking sweet potato pies as she was about her family. And she was as careful in making preparations for her funeral as she was in sewing clothes for herself and her neighbors.
Six years ago, Ms. Miller and her daughter Caroline McMillan, a sergeant in the New York City Police Department, made arrangements with the Bell Funeral Home in Brooklyn. She handpicked a casket, the floral arrangement for the ceremony, and even the letters that would notify friends and family. But when the end came on March 28, the cause of death was something no one had ever imagined: COVID-19. On that day in New York, there were 7,534 new cases of COVID-19 and 201 people died. Evelyn Miller’s family had to scramble to find a funeral home that would accept a COVID-19 victim.
Mrs. Miller’s funeral took place on April 2 in the chapel of Harlem’s Unity Funeral Chapels, the funeral home whose claim to fame is that it handled the funeral of Malcom X in 1965 when no one else wanted to do so. It was far from the neighbors with whom she had lived in Brooklyn for more than 45 years. Only five people attended, including her daughter, Sgt. Caroline McMillan, and her granddaughter, Brijhai McMillan, a junior at Morgan State University. Evelyn Miller was sealed in a glorified pine box with handles and a piece of paper on top that nagged at her daughter’s curiosity throughout the improvised service.
When she investigated, she discovered that the slip of paper did not say anything like “Evelyn Lorraine Miller, loving mother, grandmother and pillar of her community.” It read: “Toxic: Biohazard.”
The McMillans’ experience has become familiar to hundreds of thousands of families in the U.S. in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 170,000 people nationally and more than 700,000 worldwide. As of Aug. 10, more than 5 million cases had been diagnosed in the United States. This has been particularly impactful on Black families for whom homegoing rituals are a prominent cultural and spiritual event.
At the funeral for Rep. John Lewis in Atlanta last month, which followed six days of international mourning, the number of mourners permitted in the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church was limited and they were required to be socially distanced. Some messages were pre-recorded and everyone wore masks.
“At a time where we would find comfort in embracing one another, love compels us to socially distance from one another. But make no mistake, we are together in principle, even if not in proximity,” said Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at the church most famously led by Reverends Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. The congressman was a long-time member of Ebenezer.
At Morgan State University in Baltimore recently, mourners gathered at the Murphy Fine Arts Center to bid farewell to Dr. Clara I. Adams, a former Vice President of Academic Affairs and Special Assistant to the President. It was a service dramatically scaled down from what one would expect from someone who had served Morgan for more than 60 years, touching the lives of thousands of students. It was a one-hour service and people were asked to wear masks and keep socially distant.
Dr. Marco Merrick, an education and outreach specialist for the Maryland Commission of Civil Rights, is a musician who, alone or with his choirs, participates in dozens of funerals every year. “The funeral process is a real act of closure for folks, so [this] is a real challenge. Generally, in the Black community funerals take place in the context of a church or a mosque or even a funeral home. But even in the funeral home they make it a religious process.”
The ritual of saying goodbye often begins in a hospital room with family and friends comforting their loved one in their last moments. That’s been curtailed in the wake of COVID-19. There is typically a wake where people gather, tell stories, and serve food. The gathering together continues in a church or mosque or other space where the person’s life is celebrated with an often-lengthy service involving sharing more stories, singing, reciting prayers and reading from sacred texts. That, too, has been cut back.
“There’s definitely going to be some lingering trauma we’re going to have to deal with because people have had to deal with the guilt of not being able to be with people in their last days,” observes Dr. Jasmine Ward, a public health professional from Arlington, Texas, founder of Black Ladies in Public Health. “We start thinking of these people as just percentages; but, in reality, these are people’s lives. Every single day of the week we lose somebody; and as a country and a nation we haven’t been able to deal with that.”
Merrick has witnessed numerous funerals since the pandemic began and says they have been “unsettling for people who have a different expectation of what that should be in terms of the history of funerals.”
Due to the protocols required because of COVID-19, all homegoing rituals have been altered, regardless of whether the virus was the cause of death. Dr. Simone Barrett discovered that after her mother, Shirley Barrett, died of breast cancer at the age of 84 in Baltimore on April 16. On that day eight people died of coronavirus in Maryland and 752 new cases were reported. There were approximately 35,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S by then.
“There was a noticeable lack of control compared to funerals I’d made arrangements for before,” Barrett said. They preferred to have the service at the church the family has long attended, Greater Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church in East Baltimore. But the church was closed because of COVID-19. Instead they held a service in the chapel in King Memorial Park cemetery. It took some negotiating with funeral directors so that more of the family and fewer staff from the funeral home would be present.
“There was me, my sister Bonita, our cousin and her two kids, a pastor who was a family friend and a few others,” she said. “We all had the stance of, ‘Why do you need to be in the room if it limits the amount of family who can attend?’ And after some back and forth, they relented.”
Still a few family members had to wait outside. Despite the difficulties, Barrett expressed gratitude. “We got to see her put in the mausoleum, so I’m thankful we could actually be there to say goodbye.”
Some families don’t have the opportunity to attend funerals of their family members, even when they did not die of the virus. That was the case when Christian Marcel Shipp died in a car crash in Atlanta on May 31. A 25-year-old budding entrepreneur and 2018 Morehouse graduate who lived in Conyers, Georgia, he was laid to rest at a graveside service in Green Meadows Memorial Garden on June 5. On that day there were 752 new cases and 65 deaths in Georgia. By that time, there were approximately 1.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 108,790 deaths in the U.S.
The service, held on a rainy Friday morning with mourners wearing masks and trying to stay socially distant, was live streamed over Vimeo. Back in Baltimore, Christian’s aunt, E.R. Shipp, a professor at Morgan State University, sat on a bench underneath a tree near a koi pond in a friend’s yard. What she did has become more common during the COVID-19 pandemic: She watched the funeral on her laptop.
Despite the difficult circumstances, people are finding ways to make do.
Caroline McMillan has not given up on the idea of a more appropriate homegoing for her mother. “I am the woman I am today because of the woman my mom was,” she said. As soon as it is safe for people to gather at cemeteries in larger numbers, she said, “we’re getting her a tombstone and we’re going to go back and have a memorial for her.”
Others have found ways to use technology as a means of grieving, sharing their experiences on social media, attending memorial services via Zoom, and creating their own memorials online.
Ward, the Texas health care professional, and 12 of her colleagues created a website, United Memories, using over 500 names accumulated as they tried to track the impact of the virus by race and gender. They launched the site on April 18 as a virtual memorial for Black Americans who have died during the pandemic. The site’s home page features a scrolling collection of photos and a form that mourners can fill out to submit information to be added to the virtual memorial. The site also includes links to resources for people who are grieving, specifically links to organizations specializing in mental health in the Black community.
Ward said, “We have to be willing to hold onto those sacred rituals that make us who we are, even if they seem disconnected or improvised.”