TUPELO • Since its first COVID-19 casualty was reported on March 19, 2020, Mississippi has been dealing with death. Around 7,000 of them, as of Saturday.
Still, some individuals deal more with death than others simply by the nature of their occupations. Among them, coroners, funeral directors and ministers have been on the front lines doing the confirming, confronting and comforting as coronavirus cases surged and more and more Mississippians lost their lives. The Daily Journal recently spoke with several Lee County professionals for whom dealing with death is a regular occurrence, and the ways in which their jobs and lives have changed during the pandemic.
‘If they thought it was COVID, they called me’
Workloads of coroners across the state saw a dramatic increase because of the pandemic.
While a death from COVID-19 is considered a natural cause, state law required coroners to perform additional investigating and reporting when a patient died from complications with the virus.
As Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green explained it, a section of the state’s legal code requires coroners to respond to any deaths that may affect public interest. That includes threats to public safety, like virulent or contagious diseases.
“If they thought it was COVID, they called me,” Green said. “Most of the calls were at the hospital. We evaluated the chart and looked at pre-existing conditions to make a determination.”
The types of deaths to which a coroner is required to investigate is long and varied. In addition to homicides and unidentified bodies, the coroner’s office reports deaths of people admitted to the hospital less than 24 hours earlier, people in accidents, suspected drug overdoses and those who die in the emergency room.
In March 2020, before the pandemic’s first death reached Mississippi, Green and her staff reported 129 deaths in Lee County. By August 2020, when the virus was wreaking havoc across the state, they filed reports on more than 200 deaths.
“From last March through January, our call volume just about doubled,” Green said. “It was more paperwork and more hours. My three deputy coroners and I were able to handle it.”
Because the North Mississippi Medical Center is located in Tupelo, Green already handles many cases where people from across Northeast Mississippi come to Lee County and die. So even before Lee County had its first COVID-related death, Green was reporting on them.
“When it hit other states, and they didn’t have any COVID rooms left, they sent them here,” Green said. “We had folks from Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and all over Mississippi for a while. We had to report on them, but statistically they were listed under their home county in their home state.”
Over the past few months, the workload for Green and her small staff has lessened significantly. Social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinations have drastically reduced the number of people dying of COVID-19.
“During the heat of the pandemic, I could be called to the hospital for one death and have two or three more die while I was there,” Green said. “It has slowed down dramatically. Now I might have one (COVID-19 death) every 7 to 10 days.”
‘We’ve buried friends, we buried classmates’
Since 1913, family has been an important value for Grayson-Porter’s Mortuary.
Now in its fifth generation of being family-owned and operated, the funeral home has a long legacy, a fact that wasn’t lost on funeral director Jacque Grayson and her staff of eight.
The pandemic didn’t change that. If anything, it made the weight of that legacy even heavier. What it did change, however, were a lot of traditions.
COVID-19 introduced a lot of “don’ts,” Grayson said. As a funeral director who loves serving families, she tried to think past how the virus would affect the business and instead consider how staff could show families love, have services and keep people safe.
“Our minds are ‘OK, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do for this family,’” Grayson said. “We’ve got to make it easier, we have to be everything for this family because losing a loved one from COVID is a devastating place to be in.”
When the pandemic first hit, Grayson and her staff wondered how they were going to serve families. It was a frightening feeling. With their own families at home to consider, they took necessary precautions to stay safe. Instead of coming together as a group, they limited gatherings to a handful at a time.
Whenever serving, they always wear masks and PPE to protect one another. Grayson-Porter’s Mortuary followed CDC guidelines during services, viewings and any family gatherings. Crowds of mourners were gone. Instead of meeting families during removals, staff completed it alone.
The effects of the pandemic also hit Grayson personally. The funeral director and staff are part of the community: Lee County is where they raised their children and grandchildren, served as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts leaders, served politically, and worship.
“This is our home, and we love this community and love the people of this community,” Grayson said. “COVID has impacted our staff’s families, even our family. We’ve buried friends, we buried classmates . . . it has really touched home.”
Experience gave them an advantage. Grayson was around during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, and everything she learned during that time helped prepare her for the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. Many of those practices remained in place, and Grayson knew what she had to do, and be willing to do, to save others.
She said watching the generations that came before her as a child showed her what to do and how to keep a positive attitude while serving.
“COVID has hit families,” Grayson said. For some families, the virus has been especially ruthless, taking multiple loved ones in a matter of days or weeks.
Grayson’s job is to help ease the surviving members of those families through a portion of the grieving process through empathy and care. To take on that burden requires strength.
“We have to be strong,“ she said. “We want to be that arm; we want to be that shoulder; we want to be that person that they bring all their energy to, and we want to take it off of them.”
For loved ones lost to COVID-19, Grayson said they tried to honor who the person was in life within the boundaries of the CDC’s guidelines. Families chose the arrangements. While early chapel services could only have 10 people present at a time, they accommodated additional viewers with livestreaming if the families chose that option. Later on, many opted to have graveside services to accommodate a larger attendance.
The pandemic taught Grayson and her staff patience.
“It was a life-changing experience, and still is,” Grayson said. “We want to continue to serve and honor the life lived the way the family is requesting. It might be a little different, out of the norm, that they say, but that’s OK too.”
‘Our job is to love’
Just before the pandemic began, Rev. Phillip Parker of All Saints’ Episcopal Church came to Tupelo from the Sumner and Greenwood area of the Delta.
Pre-pandemic, average Sunday attendance between the church’s two services would be around 160 people. All Saints’ halted in-person worship services last spring and largely met via livestreamed services, with a couple of months of in-person, socially distanced meetings scattered throughout the year.
“It’s been a roller coaster up and down,” Parker said.
During the pandemic, several members have contracted COVID; some even spent time in the hospital. Fortunately, no members of the congregation have died from the virus.
Which, of course, isn’t to say there weren’t deaths. There always are.
As with any normal year, part of Parker’s job as a religious leader is to comfort those who are grieving. The pandemic complicated that role.
“It was hard negotiating through that, not being able to come together and remember them,” Parker said.
He conducted several socially distanced graveside services during the pandemic, but hopes to host a large celebration service to remember parishioners lost during the past year who couldn’t receive a proper farewell.
Parker has worked full time in ministry for around three years. Before that, he worked as a community mental health therapist. That experience has helped him to connect with the church’s members this year as they struggled to process the onslaught of sickness and death in the community.
Even with his experience, Parker said he’s had to remain mindful of the boundaries that exist as a minister.
“I’ve had to remind myself, ‘You’re not a therapist anymore,’” Parker said. “I’ve had to remind myself, ‘Your job right now is to be with them and to journey with them through this, not to help them out of it.’ So I’ve had to step back a couple of times and go, ‘You know, I’m happy to talk with you, but if you need more, I can help you find someone.’”
Since Parker is still relatively new to Tupelo, the change the virus brought to the city didn’t hit him as hard.
“This has just been normal for me,” he said. “But the weight of this normal has been difficult.”
His sermons have always focused less on “doom and gloom” and more on encouraging members to love their neighbor in any situation. It’s a message he feels has been especially important during the past year.
“They probably get tired of hearing me saying ‘Love people!’” Parker said. “It doesn’t matter who they are, where they’re from. Our job is to love.”
Death has always been a part of life. Dealing with it has too. Although that process is never easy, even for those who do it regularly, there are ways to lessen the burden.
“From individual to individual, and from individual and God ... no matter what we do, no matter what we try, we have to have help,” Parker said.
In spite of social distancing, surviving the pandemic isn’t actually an exercise in isolationism. People need each other, especially during times of strife.
Parker said his goal throughout the pandemic has been to remind people they can’t go it alone.
“We’ve gone through tornadoes, Spanish flu, two world wars ... marking (those occasions) was hard when we couldn’t be together, but we tried,” Parker said. “Even if it’s just an encouraging smile from a little kid that gets you through the day or a beautiful sunny day, know that those are little moments where God is breaking through saying ‘I’m here. I’m with you, and it’s going to be OK.’”