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In Detroit, a funeral moves outside as coronavirus deaths mount

On a cold spring morning in a despairing city, Floyd Mitchell was laid to rest.

The retired juvenile counselor couldn't be memorialized inside a funeral home because his widow is recovering from the coronavirus that killed him. Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit, where he would be buried, only allowed three visitors at graveside.

So his beloved church, Plymouth United Church of Christ-Detroit, took his open casket outside Saturday morning before 10 relatives, each sitting 6 feet apart in folding chairs and wearing masks.  The Rev. Nicholas Hood III presided over his first outside funeral in 44 years as a pastor.

“I was just grappling for a suggestion… some way to help out a family overcome by this virus,” Hood told Bridge Magazine hours after the service.

“I didn’t want to go into a funeral home because of the virus. I didn’t want a funeral inside my church because so many members have had it, it just wouldn’t be responsible. So what else can you do?”

So it goes in Detroit, where 590 have died from the coronavirus that has infected 7,497 as of Saturday, including Mitchell’s widow, Gwen. She only suffered from a fever, but the illness overwhelmed her 80-year-old husband who died April 3.

The coronavirus has posed huge challenges for churches and funeral homes throughout southeast Michigan. 

Some aren’t embalming bodies because funeral workers are short of protective gear. Churches have delayed services altogether, or limited them to 10 or fewer. Morgues have called in refrigerated trucks to store the dead, while suburban Oakland County is scouting ice rinks to keep them. 

Hood said he has many members who have died or been sickened by the virus, including many who are still on ventilators. He told Bridge he “sadly” has had to decline officiating services because of fears of spreading the virus and “compromising the church,” and wracked his brain for solutions.

So at 11 a.m., he exited his car and approached the casket that was placed above a brick courtyard that Mitchell helped raise money for 10 years ago. The service was shortened and ended with a cemetery prayer typically offered at graveside.

Earth to Earth. Ashes to Ashes. Dust to Dust.  

Flowers were laid on the casket and the service concluded by 11:31 a.m.

“I thought it was appropriate given the pandemic we are living in,” said Hood, a former member of the Detroit City Council. 

“I’ll be honest. I prayed it wouldn’t rain today. I think this helps with closure. We are living in an extreme situation, but as human beings, we still want closure.”

More than two hours after the service, dozens of friends and relatives drove by the home of his wife of nearly 45 years. Because of social distancing, any closer could be dangerous. 

“It was wonderful,” Gwen Mitchell told Bridge. “I really appreciated all of it. It helped so much move me to closure.”

Within hours of the service, photos of the open casket and odd seating arrangements were spreading on social media. 

Hood initially hesitated but didn’t discourage the sharing. Now, he views the photos as a challenge to fellow ministers to think differently about how they memorialize the dead during a pandemic.

“I may do more,” Hood said, referring to outside funerals. 

“It may seem gross [to share photos] but I want to telegraph to my congregation and to others that there are other options, and we have to do more.”



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