WASHINGTON – When the time finally came, they laid Joanne Paylor to rest the finest way they could during a pandemic. A church service was out. The viewing had to be socially distanced. Golden chairs for the outdoor memorial service were carefully spaced apart.
Still, the spirit of “Mama Joe” – who, at the age of 62, had plans to return to college in the fall to get a master’s degree -- infused it all.
Many women wore tiaras, and men sported crisp white suits. There were turquoise face masks reading “Joanne.” And the voice of Joanne herself echoed over the loudspeakers: “I love y’all," a remnant of a voicemail she once left her son.
The coronavirus pandemic is delaying funerals and forcing changes to families’ plans for memorializing their loved ones. For the Paylor family this has hit close to home.
Iran “Bang” Paylor and his mother were closer than close. Of her four children, he was the only son, and they shared a special bond.
“My mother was a very giving, generous person. She believed in great strides for the African American community — single mothers in particular,” Iran said.
The first person in her family to attend college, “she believed in education, that it could break down barriers and help you achieve all your dreams,” he said. She wanted to start a fund for single mothers over 30 to return to college, just as she had done.
When his mother died at home in southwest Washington on March 8 of what appears to have been a heart attack, her family planned a funeral for March 21. And then, Iran said, “the coronavirus came in like a storm.”
“I had heard about it being in China, and China is so far I paid that no attention,” he said. “But the first time I heard about it affecting daily life is when they called me and canceled the funeral.”
A March 20 district prohibition on mass gatherings had made the large church service impossible, one day before it was planned. Iran thought the family could just wait it out, but then the district issued a stay-at-home order, effective April 1.
“My mother was active in community outreach for 20 years. We wanted a big funeral. I would have expected 300 people,” he said.
Preachers said they were unable to deliver the sermon. Singers and praise dancers canceled. All event spaces closed. People were scared to attend, despite promises of social distancing and an outdoor ceremony.
Then the stay-at-home order was extended — and extended again, through May 15.
Through it all, Joanne’s body remained at a funeral home, her family hoping against hope that they could go back to the original plan — a large ceremony, in her community church, grieving together with family and hundreds of friends.
With Mother’s Day approaching, the funeral home indicated it was time to lay her to rest. Iran wanted the family to be able to visit his mother at her grave, a mausoleum he had built especially for her, the start of a new family plot.
He wanted to be able to sit on a granite bench at his mother’s graveside and pay his respects — a bench that can’t even be ordered now because the factory in China is shuttered.
On Sunday May 3, they finally said goodbye to Joanne, who leaves behind 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A horse-drawn hearse brought her to the cemetery for her interment.
Condolence letters were sent by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the president of Joanne’s alma mater, Trinity Washington University. For the indoor viewing, people cycled in, 10 people at a time, careful to stay six feet apart.
At the door of the chapel at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Suitland-Silver Hill, Maryland, stood Iran and his three sisters. Women from Models Inc., the community organization founded by Iran and supported by his mother, wore glittering tiaras.
Golden chairs were set up outside for the memorial service, spaced apart. Some people stood, six feet from one another across the lawn of the cemetery, dressed to the nines -- all in white, to symbolize an angel.
His mother would have loved it, Iran said. Joanne always was very fashion-forward.
In her honor, the family has founded the Joanne Paylor Women of Excellence Scholarship Award at Trinity Washington University.
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