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.’”

Gregory Burrell (left), owner of Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia, waits as Elmer Lynn puts on gloves during a funeral consultation on April 16. Lynn said he lost his wife, Mildred, to COVID-19 on Easter Sunday, and that eight family members have the coronavirus.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Gregory Burrell (left), owner of Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia, waits as Elmer Lynn puts on gloves during a funeral consultation on April 16. Lynn said he lost his wife, Mildred, to COVID-19 on Easter Sunday, and that eight family members have the coronavirus.

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.”

Elmer Lynn, of Lansdowne, Pa., picks out an urn for his wife, Mildred, in the showroom at Terry Funeral Home. Lynn said his wife, Mildred, died of COVID-19 and was planning to have her cremated.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Elmer Lynn, of Lansdowne, Pa., picks out an urn for his wife, Mildred, in the showroom at Terry Funeral Home. Lynn said his wife, Mildred, died of COVID-19 and was planning to have her cremated.

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.

For Terry Funeral Home in West Philadelphia, homegoings are the most popular type of service. During enslavement in the U.S., gatherings among enslaved people were restricted. Homegoings were among rare instances that some enslavers allowed black people to come together. Homegoings, which are held across denominations in the black church, celebrate the person’s life and that their spirit has made it back home. These services are often filled with jubilation and music.


Black mutual aid societies, many run through churches and clubs, made providing burial insurance a core mission in the 19th century. University of Missouri-Columbia professor Tashel Bordere said black funeral homes, “grew out of this need to take properly take care of black bodies and to make sure that they are represented in a way that is meaningful, and that produces solace for families who come in to see or have their final moments.”


Outside of funerals, black communities often memorialize through art and material culture. Consider the shrines that neighborhoods build when a life is lost, memorial tags and medallions that bear loved ones’ faces, memorial tattoos, or the RIP murals that adorn many walls in Philadelphia. Some black mourners order life-size cut-out portraits of the ones who transition.


“So, how do we keep these going?” Bordere posed. “How do we continue producing these things that meant something for us in a way that still feels very visible for us even in whether there's an audience or not?”


Here are Bordere’s recommendations maintaining black memorial traditions during the pandemic:

  • Hold a processional of cars around the deceased’s favorite places
  • Have every vehicle tune into the same music playlist
  • Serve the deceased’s favorite meals at home, in place of a traditional repast
  • Host conference call or digital forum where mourners can speak the names of their loved ones
  • Order R.I.P T-shirts or jewelry

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.

As researchers widely predicted, COVID-19 has become another disease with grim impact for the black community. The pandemic’s risks extend beyond death, explained Towson University social epidemiologist Sharon Jones-Eversley. The pandemic, she said, is a “wake up call” and an opportunity to address longstanding racial disparities. Here are her recommendations for what local governments, institutions, communities and individuals can do.

  • Collaboration, including research and training, between public health experts, black funeral home directors, health care workers, epidemiologists, death researchers and bereavement specialists
  • Promoting efforts to improve water and air quality in distressed communities
  • Maintaining high sanitary guidelines for community spaces and neighborhood businesses
  • Emergency support for funeral homes and institutions who provide grief services

Jones-Eversley says that residents should continue washing their hands, eating healthy food and exercising. They also should:

  • Seek medical attention when needed
  • Have conversations with professionals and family members about health, death planning and legacy
  • Discuss family medical history and be transparent about with relatives about diseases that may run in the family
  • Small family health fairs to address conditions in medical history

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.

Geraldine James (left) is comforted by her son, Nijere James, as she cries after saying goodbye to her brother, Henry James, during his viewing at Terry Funeral Home on April 18. James died of COVID-19 on April 4. Geraldine was not permitted to touch his body due to safety concerns.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Geraldine James (left) is comforted by her son, Nijere James, as she cries after saying goodbye to her brother, Henry James, during his viewing at Terry Funeral Home on April 18. James died of COVID-19 on April 4. Geraldine was not permitted to touch his body due to safety concerns.

“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.

Henry James, 64, was the guy you could find on Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia, hanging out with friends he’d known for years. He loved Philadelphia. He was a retired paratransit driver for CCT Connect, a former block captain and participated in the Men of Mill Creek, a group focused on crime prevention.


He died on April 11 of COVID-19 at Roxborough Hospital.


When he was a student at West Philadelphia High in the 1970s, Mr. James was one of the early wall writers who wound up pioneering graffiti culture. Cornbread knew him as Gator, one of the teens who ran with graffiti legend Kool Earl back then.


“He was mellow. He was friendly. He was easy to get along with. He never caused any controversy" said Earl “Kool Earl” Hubbard.


He got the name Gator, at first, because of a condition that made the skin on his neck look reptilic, said Pamela Dixon, his fiancée. The rashes subsided, but motivated him to wear alligator shoes. Henry James became known for his love of fashion, and for dressing from head-to-toe— suits, hats, pinky rings and of course footwear.


Henry James previously lived with addiction, but had been in recovery for more than 30 years. He was devoted to Narcotics Anonymous, where he was a sponsor.


“He used to always say, ‘God granted him that serenity and he ran with it,’” recalled Dixon.


Lloyd Knight, the deceased’s brother, remembers Mr. James as a role model, pushing to help youth stay out of trouble: “He was a good example in the community,” Knight said. “He paid the most attention to his nephews and the younger kids.”

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."

Cemetery workers carry the casket of Henry James, who died of COVID-19, to his gravesite at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia on April 18. All attendees had to watch from their vehicles because of strict guidelines in place during the coronavirus outbreak.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Cemetery workers carry the casket of Henry James, who died of COVID-19, to his gravesite at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia on April 18. All attendees had to watch from their vehicles because of strict guidelines in place during the coronavirus outbreak.