Black-owned funeral homes adapt for coronavirus, serve communities

‘We’re having too many funerals now,’ owner says

A mortuary worker prepares the coffin carrying the body of a person who died of COVID-19 before being cremated during a funeral at Mmora mortuary in Girona, Spain, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
A mortuary worker prepares the coffin carrying the body of a person who died of COVID-19 before being cremated during a funeral at Mmora mortuary in Girona, Spain, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TAMPA, Fla. – For the first time since 1990, Jeffrey Rhodes has told families that the Ray Williams Funeral Home was booked for the weekend.

Many churches are not allowing funerals this year due to coronavirus pandemic safety measures. Rhodes, like other Black funeral directors across Florida and the country, has been relying on graveside or chapel services which have fewer time slots available on weekends ― which families prefer ― making it hard to accommodate all families at once.

“We’re having too many funerals now,” Rhodes said.

[TRENDING: How to view rare ‘Christmas Star’ on MondayFlorida rolls out daily vaccine reportUS prepares to ship second vaccine]

It’s one of the ways the pandemic has altered death care, especially within the Black community, where funeral homes are as much cultural institutions as they are businesses, and at a time when racial disparities persist in coronavirus cases and deaths. Kaiser Health News reported in September that Black Americans ages 65 to 74 had died of COVID-19 five times as often as whites.

Ray Williams opened in Tampa in 1930 and contains family records dating that far back. In 1990, Rhodes and David Northern Jr. took over ownership, adding their names to the business while keeping it family-owned and independent.

More importantly, Rhodes notes, he and the business have remained a part of the local community. Rhodes started working there when he was 17.

That community connection is common historically when it comes to African-American funeral homes, said Hari P. Close II, president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.