Black Funerals, COVID-19, And The Importance Of Saying Goodbye

Apr 22, 2020

North Carolina's stay-at-home order includes a prohibition on gatherings of more than 10 people. In Durham, that restriction is no more than five people. Even though health experts say social distancing is critical in saving lives during this pandemic, it's been difficut for people not to gather at funerals.

A long-time African American funeral home in Durham is working to help families mourn, while also keeping them safe, at a time when so many people of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.  

Ellis D. Jones & Sons Funeral Directors built their family business 85 years ago, at the corner of North Elizabeth and Dowd Streets. And you could say they know everybody and everybody knows them.

"See how people love me! They want me to stay safe. I’ve had so much love!" Nina Jones Mason shouts from the front door of Ellis D. Jones & Sons, after a family friend handed her a box of face masks. You would have thought it was her birthday.

"Whew, this is a good start right here! Yes, thank you. Love you," said Jones Mason. "I appreciate you doing this for me."

Ellis D. Jones and Sons funeral directors, a long-time African American funeral home in Durham, is working to help families mourn, while also keeping them safe, at a time when so many people of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC

Jones Mason is a 4th generation funeral director at Ellis D. Jones & Sons. Her work uniform often includes a stylish black suit or dress, pearls around her neck and a large burgundy flower near the left shoulder. These days, her attire also includes black gloves with a black face mask to match. During this coronavirus pandemic, Jones Mason's community is counting on her to stay healthy.

"But the thing is, the stress level of trying to keep everything clean, keep everybody safe, keep my staff safe," said Jones Mason, who takes her staff's temperature every day. "Because if anybody comes down with it, we are shut down. Can’t do that."

Funeral-goers listen to hymns in the parking lot following a service for Pearlie Cameron on Sunday at Ellis D. Jones & Sons Funeral Directors in Durham, NC.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC

The first COVID-19 death reported in the state of Georgia was on March 12. Health professionals and news reports say it was an African American man, who attended a large funeral in Albany almost two weeks earlier. Since then, many people who attended Andrew Mitchell's funeral have fallen ill, including six of his siblings. Epidemiologists have labeled the funeral a "super spreader" event and rural Dougherty county now has more than 100 COVID-19 deaths.

Jones Mason knows the story, and similar stories in other cities like Chicago and Detroit. She officiated a funeral last month that was larger than what she wanted it to be. It was more than 100 people at a church and even more at the repast. The Black woman who passed was 98-years-old, with generations of relatives.

"We're a culture that loves to support each other and we love to feed each other and that’s not happening. That's a major difference," said Jones Mason. "Repast and taking people food and visiting with them. That's not happening."

From left, Amos Jones Jr., Mashelda Jones, and Alana Jones attend a memorial service honoring Pearlie Cameron on Sunday at Ellis D. Jones & Sons Funeral Directors in Durham, NC.
Credit Kate Medley / For WUNC

The latest funeral restrictions allow for 50 people to gather. Ellis D. Jones & Sons allows for only 30, after measuring to keep people 6 feet apart. And there are no rides in the limousines.

In New York, where the death toll is around 15,000 people, funerals are limited to no more than 10 people per service. In Durham, there were 29 people at Pearlie Ann Cameron's service on April 19. She died of a heart attack. A list of attendees was required, and everyone had to wear a mask. 

"We got to do the right thing," said Lee Afford, Cameron's brother, while wearing a face mask. "It's protecting ourselves and everyone else."

Cameron’s daughter, April Wise, understands the social distancing rules, but says it's an emotional time for her family.

"We were going to get together. Might not have been a service, but we were going to be together," said Wise. "It wasn’t going to be big, we might have took turns, but we was going to do it."

Still, Wise is glad Jones Mason was there for them to lean on, again.

"We are thankful for her, she has helped us bury my Aunt, my Grandma, and now my Mom," said Wise.

Jones Mason made sure Cameron's service streamed on Facebook Live for those who were not allowed to attend the service.

"I feel so much compassion and empathy for them," said Jones Mason. "There are some funeral homes who are not allowing service at all."

When the service for Pearlie Ann Cameron was over, family and friends who sat several feet apart inside, embraced outside. There were tears, especially after an ensemble began to sing "Total Praise," a capella, in the parking lot.