For 81 years, generations of families have come to say their goodbyes here. They’ve shared words of comfort, cried freely, and sung hymns to salve the pain. The chapel inside Terry Funeral Home has held them all.
Elmer Lynn had planned to memorialize his 70-year-old wife, Mildred, here, too. She died on Easter of COVID-19 at Lankenau Hospital.
Seated at an antique table in the casket selection room, a weary Lynn explained to Gregory Burrell, the owner of the West Philadelphia funeral home, why he changed his mind.
“There’s eight members of the family that has it. Nobody’s gonna come. So why should I have a viewing?” said Lynn, who first met Mildred when they were teenagers around the corner from each other in Mantua.
Discussions had been heated with loved ones about the funeral for his spouse of 50 years. Her family is close and visited each other frequently, unaware that they were spreading the coronavirus. Lynn was firm: “Just go straight to cremation. That would solve the immediate problem."
Burrell began the paperwork: “You sure nobody wants to view before we, uh—”
“I went through this before I came over here,” Lynn said, interrupting before Burrell could finish his question. “And it was all a resounding ‘hell, no.’”
Since the pandemic began, Gregory Burrell’s days have been filled with difficult conversations. The number of direct cremations is higher than ever at Terry Funeral Home. In any given year, his establishment handles an estimated 5% of the 6,800 black deaths in Philadelphia.
But 2020 is not just any year. Black people in Philadelphia – and in other U.S. cities including Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles – have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Although black residents represent 44% of the city’s population, they currently represent 54% of COVID-19 deaths, according to the data available. As of Friday night, there were 638 deaths in the city, racial analysis was available for 508 of them. Out of these 508 deaths in the city, 273 were black residents.
Given stringent public health limitations around gatherings and human contact, concerns around how the bereaved will reconcile losses are universal. In the black community, the new restrictions have disrupted centuries-old funeral traditions and the ways they can collectively grieve.
“The impact that it’s having on families who’d like to have the traditional homegoing service— they are being robbed of that as a result of this virus,” said Burrell, 59, of the black church ceremony, which emphasizes that the spirit making it to heaven calls for jubilation. “And it’s disheartening for me, having experienced death in my own family. Just recently, my wife passed away a year ago. I could not imagine not being able to have the homegoing that she wanted for herself.”
Worry never leaves his mind. By April 15, Terry Funeral Home had already seen 25 bodies, what they’d typically handle in a month. At month’s end, the funeral home had received 54, half of those people had died of COVID-19. Under ordinary circumstances, funerals with burials make up 65% to 70% of their business. But with more cremations, traditional funerals are down to around half.
“It’s so much rapid death so quickly,” said Burrell, who has a staff of five full-time employees and 15 part-time workers, all working longer hours since the pandemic began.
Funerals were a big deal in Apopka, the Florida town outside of Orlando where Burrell was raised. When he was 8, a friend who was a year older died after falling out of a tree, and he was one of the pallbearers. There was one funeral home in town.
“I got hooked,” Burrell said. “I started going to funerals of people who I didn’t even know.”
He worked his way up in the funeral business over the years and made a name for himself after reviving a struggling funeral home in Winston-Salem, N.C. He didn’t think he’d settle this far north, but a fraternity brother told him the Terry Funeral Home was up for sale.
Inside Burrell’s office, lined with framed clippings of press coverage, regalia of his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, and his alma mater, Morehouse College, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. Each day he receives at least six inquiries for services. During the pandemic, he’s gotten calls from families in hard-hit states such as New York and New Jersey. Terry Funeral Home cared for the homegoings for such high-profile Philadelphia political leaders as C. Delores Tucker, William Gray, and Lucien Blackwell. He bought the business from the Terry family in 2000.
A lot of his business comes from mourners who trust them for the funerals they’ve conducted before, such as the woman who once recalled to him that Terry had handled her grandfather’s service in 1939, or Geraldine James, who arrived at the funeral home after Elmer Lynn settled plans for his wife’s cremation. James was there to ask about a payment plan.
Her brother, Henry, 64, known for his civic work in West Philadelphia, died earlier in April after contracting coronavirus at Cliveden Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Mount Airy, where he was being treated for COPD. He tested positive on a Wednesday, and on that Saturday, he was gone.
“It just happened so fast. It feels like it started with a roommate having a cold,” Geraldine James said.
Their brother, Lloyd Knight, had made the payments on Henry James’ life insurance policy. There was another policy that named Geraldine as the beneficiary. Both were worth $9,000; they were $6,000 short. Most of the remaining balance was for the interment, which was to be paid to the cemetery. If they couldn’t raise the money, burial would be out and they’d have to cremate Henry.
“That was kind of traumatic, waiting to find out what the amount was,” Knight said. “We already purchased the casket, so we had to move forward.”
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a funeral in 2017 with a viewing and an interment was $8,755. Some final expense insurance policies may cover only $5,000. And two out of five Americans, research shows, don’t have life insurance at all.
Burrell acknowledges that his funeral home is one of the more expensive ones. Still, Burrell said, families expect lower prices because so few can actually attend a funeral now. Earlier in the month, Terry Funeral Home had limited livestreaming options in the chapel, but launched Zoom funerals in late April. In-person services are limited to 10 people at a time.
University of Missouri-Columbia professor Tashel Bordere, who researches death and rituals, has observed that across faiths, grieving black families, honoring their loved ones, often take occasions such as homegoings and Islamic janazahs to assert the value of the person’s life, in a way that may not have been recognized by society. Turnout is “a sign of respect,” she said.
Those who show up — from clergy to fictive play family — assume roles that help the grieving process. This reflects the collectivist nature of many black families, she said, and compensates, for some, for a lack of trust for mental-health professionals who may lack training in bereavement counseling and culturally responsive practices.
“No matter what the form of death was, whether from COVID-19 to cancer to homicide, the goal is to still say this person matters and to create this atmosphere for people to be able to, to cry, to wail, to express all of the things that they will not be able to express in other spaces or in the absence of other support that might be more accessible for majority populations,” Bordere explained.
Black mourners, Bordere explained, especially those who may be balancing other economic pressures already, are tasked with financing memorials that can show the departed’s worth while facing steep funeral costs.
While research frequently notes how pregnancy-related death, gun violence, cancer, heart disease among public health crises affect black people, there is less emphasis on the cumulative toll of chronic death exposure and “the grief pipeline," said Towson University social epidemiologist Sharon Jones-Eversley.
“When you have communities that are already saturated with death all around them, and then when that death hits their household, hits their workplace, hits their community, what kind of services from a population-based perspective or community-based perspective are being offered?” Jones-Eversley asked. “Once the cameras go, the news article is written, the church sends over food and friends come, how does that family, how do those individuals that are impacted by that loss, how do they move on?”
Burrell doesn’t know how the families he serves, nor how the community at large, will recover. The funeral home is in talks to partner with mental-health specialists to offer counseling.
“We have not began to scratch the surface on what people gon be going through,” he said.
After hearing about the financial bind that Henry James’ family was in, Burrell offered a $1,600 discount. Knight rushed to a credit union, uncertain how much was in his account. That turned up $1,500. Geraldine James started calling around for donations. They finished paying for the burial during the two-hour viewing they had selected so that neighborhood friends could see Henry one last time. There was no service. The family planned to place the ashes of their sister, Victoria James, who died in November, in the casket.
“You have to stay six feet away from the casket. No touching the casket,” Albert Aponte, a funeral home attendant, told a mourner in the lobby. The queue to view was socially distanced – limited to three people. Staffers kept watch to ensure that the number of people in the chapel did not exceed 10.
Before the funeral, Geraldine James was afraid about getting too close to her late brother. Many things about the service scared her, even about what could happen with the flowers if she wanted to take any home. She arrived with daisies, lilies, and roses.
“I can’t have him back!” she sobbed. She put a red rose in her brother’s hand and another by his feet, where the urn of their sister would be placed.
Her son started to make his way towards her. A funeral home employee quickly intervened: “It’s too many people in the chapel. I’m going to ask yourself to remove yourself just for now, OK?”
As Geraldine James cried, two mourners unwrapped the urn. With that, the casket was closed.
At Ivy Hill Cemetery in Mount Airy, Henry James’ loved ones were told to stay in their cars in the parking lot. Geraldine James and Lloyd Knight were exceptions. There was no minister. Deacon Carlton Cummings, a friend of Knight’s, filled in, leading a prayer for the surviving siblings, as the two, wearing gloves, held hands.
Cummings prayed for comfort and survival for the family.
“It wasn’t considered a graveside ceremony, it was a prayer for peace that their souls be rested in heaven,” Geraldine said days later.
Before her brother’s homegoing, she felt a deep loneliness. Grieving the loss of someone to this pandemic, she said, “just leaves a lot of unanswered questions, [answers] that we’ll never get.”
Their family is planning a larger memorial for later, but with the uncertainty, Geraldine explained, it’s still too early to set a date. The homegoing of Henry James didn’t happen the way she thought it would, but in the end, she knows that they managed to give her siblings a resting place. One day, she’ll visit and talk to them. In the meantime, she’s been talking to God.
“That’s how I heal— I heal spiritually. It’s a long process. I just sit and I stare and I think about times we had together,” she said. “Today doesn’t feel any different than last week. It still hurts."