Amy Patterson By: Amy Patterson
Professor of Politics
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09 Apr 2020 : Funerals

I have been thinking about funerals, given the high mortality rates in some countries and/or regions from coronavirus. More specifically, I have been thinking about the many discourses around funerals. From the public health angle, they are an environment in which a virus like corona can easily spread. A few stories from some small towns in US southern states (including one near me) have given me pause. In these stories, many people (200+) attend a church-based funeral (clearly these pastors had not thought about—or believed in—social distancing) and then, after the fact, attendees learn that someone who was at the funeral has the virus. Funerals are not times when people are staying the requisite 6 feet apart--there is hugging, shoulder patting, hand-shaking, not to mention sneezing, crying, coughing, dirty Kleenexes! Seems they now are just another potential avenue through which people can be exposed to the virus.

I've also thought about funerals in a comparative sense, and how media and Western-oriented public health officials were much more willing to criticize the holding of (and attending) funerals in West Africa (2014-2015) during the Ebola outbreak than seems to be the case with COVID. They often were framed as a "primitive" activity where people contracted Ebola because they washed the body, they laid hands on the body (if they were Pentecostals), etc. And this is true, but as African civil society groups showed, it was possible to hold “safe burials.” Now it turns out that funerals are unsafe activities in lots of health contexts and regions—global North and global South.

Going beyond the public health and comparative angles, funerals clearly reflect cultural views on life, death, the deceased, and those left behind. In the African communities I study, these services provide a bridge between the life here and the life of the ancestors. The belief is not that the dead are “gone;” rather, they are in a new phase. A poorly attended funeral (or a funeral without adequate provisions) says a lot about the deceased and his/her family. I think a performative aspect is evident among some funerals in the US South (where I live). US Southerners who are 50+  years old often make jokes about their “funeral plans.” They want their funeral to show their personality, to really honor their lives. (My mother tells me that there should be no colored carnations at her funeral, and I warn my husband that if I go first, he will meet my wrath in the next life if the service includes "How Great Thou Art.” Such a dirge!)  

Finally, funerals have a communal aspect. They help a community—a neighborhood, a town, a workplace, a religious institution—tell those left behind that they care about them. They help to honor the living and the dead. Maybe it is this aspect that I have pondered anew in this COVID context, particularly because a highly respected, dear man in our community died this week of an unexpected heart attack. All of the things we people in small US southern towns do to comfort and honor the family and the dead-- bring food, sit with the family, help around the house, attend a big church funeral (with a shared meal afterwards)--must be "put on hold." Yet another way this pandemic is affecting us at the most personal level.  

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