In life, he hosted Detroit’s grand funerals. COVID-19 makes his own uncertain

Chairs set up at Howe-Peterson Funeral Home in Dearborn allow mourners to gather but also keep their “social distance.”

O’Neil D. Swanson founded the Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit in 1958.

In life, O'Neil D. Swanson was the man to call when a loved one died and you wanted that perfect funeral  — the horse-drawn carriage, elaborate flowers, the Hollywood-level trappings.

The Detroit funeral director orchestrated the services of the famous, including Rosa Parks, Aretha Franklin, Temptations singer David Ruffin, Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs and U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., as well as everyday Detroiters.

“He was the chief conductor for grand and stately funerals,” said Jonathan Kinloch, of Detroit, a former aide to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party.

But Swanson, who died at age 86 Friday, will likely get no such funeral: In the midst of a state lockdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, Swanson’s family will have to either delay a big service or bury the man in relative anonymity.

Funeral homes across Michigan and the country are grappling with new restrictions that infringe on the most human responses to grief: the handshake, the touch on the shoulder — tears shared during an embrace.

“That’s what we’re missing today,” said Tim Schramm, funeral director for Howe-Peterson Funeral Homes in Dearborn and Taylor.

While Whitmer’s Monday order closing non-essential businesses makes an exception for funeral homes, they are taking steps to stop the spread of the virus.

Many are rearranging visitation rooms to keep people 6 feet apart, and limiting attendance to 50. Some funeral services are limited to 10 or fewer. 

Charles Ellis, the bishop of Greater Grace Temple in Detroit that hosted funerals for Franklin and Parks, said he recently attended a service of a relative who died from COVID-19.

 He was told only eight people could attend.

“I just don’t know how you pick eight people when you have 50 or 60 [relatives and friends,]” Ellis said. “But that’s where we are.”

At Schramm’s funeral homes, chairs are arranged like an “incomplete jigsaw puzzle” to keep people apart — at a time when they most want to be together.

Related: Coronavirus has Michigan funeral homes stretched thin, fearing safety

“That’s hard when you are that family that has experienced that loss and you can’t get that intimate support,” Schramm said, “that feeling of being cared for. That’s what we’re missing today. That simple human interaction.”

Funeral homes, including Swanson’s own, are posting guidelines on how family and friends can navigate grief without violating “social distancing” guidelines. It means more social media exchanges, virtual services and contact via mail.

Some families are opting for private burials and delaying larger memorial services for later, after the restrictions are lifted. For Swanson, it will likely mean a funeral with close family and friends rather than one that thousands would attend, Ellis said.

“I think Mr. Swanson would probably have had one of the largest community funerals ever,” Ellis said. 

There “would be lines around the building because he meant so much to so many people,” Kinloch said.

Swanson founded the Swanson Funeral Home in 1958 and helped form First Independence Bank after Detroit’s civil unrest in 1967 to give African Americans access to loans.

His funeral home eventually acquired vintage Cadillac hearses, including a 1940 Cadillac LaSalle used in services for Aretha Franklin, her father, the civil rights icon C.L. Franklin and for Parks.

Asked about the cars by a city of Detroit website, Swanson responded, “this is the automotive capital of the world, still.”

Swanson may have organized funerals that drew former presidents Bill Cinton (Parks, Franklin) and Barack Obama (Parks, when he was a U.S. senator in 2005) but he probably wouldn’t mind a low-key service, friends said.

“Pomp and circumstance was not who he was,” said Mildred Gaddis, a longtime radio host in Detroit. “He was a gentleman who was tremendously blessed who never forgot his humble beginnings.”

And despite being known for the high-profile funerals, Swanson offered his same personal touch and care to those of less means. 

“If you were a millionaire or had a couple dollars in your pocket, you got the same premiere services to go home,” said Detroit political consultant Mario Morrow. 

The family has not made an announcement about his passing. But many of those, who would have liked to support the family, will have to find other ways to show it.

“I think we are all trying to be very patient,” said Ellis. “Life has changed.”

And so too, death.


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