COVID-19 Special
The Business of Death: Nashville’s Black Funeral Homes

Ricky Lewis of Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors

When a person dies and the remains are committed to a funeral home, the traditional ways of managing the body, the family and other mourners have had to adapt to “life” in the days of COVID-19. In Nashville two well-known and established mortuary establishments have their facilities a few short miles apart on Clarksville Highway. Lewis & Wright Funeral Directors is located at 2500 Clarksville Highway, and Terrell Broady Funeral Home, Inc. at 3855 Clarksville Highway. The PRIDE spoke with morticians at each of these busy businesses and got some insights into the changes that have come about over the past six months in response to the virus.

Byrettia Broady shared that the Terrell Broady Funeral Homes, with three locations, one each in Nashville, in Clarksville, and in Paris, Tennessee, through late September, had processed 300 bodies since March and could identify that the death certificates either listed COVID-19 as a cause of death or were designated as ‘COVID possible’ in 22 cases they processed in Nashville.

Mrs. Broady noted that her husband, Terrell, is the embalmer, and that he has been taking very particular caution in keeping certain that the bodies were handled in such a way as to not be a hazard to the staff or to the mourners and families. She noted that the home had developed protocols over the years in having to deal with remains of persons infected with other diseases, such as TB, Hepatitis-C, and HIV/AIDS.

Ricky Lewis of Lewis & Wright spoke with us for the better part of an hour. We talked about many different aspects of the pandemic, including how the community of morticians have had to modify their service provisions to adapt. Standards set by the state funeral board have impacted the numbers of visitors allowed and the type of contact permitted with remains.

At Lewis & Wright, visitors and staff must wear masks at all times, and only ten people at a time are allowed in each Repose Room, with one way into the Room and one way out. A ‘velvet rope’ is used to maintain distance from the remains, and there is abundant hand sanitizer widely available. Fewer programs are printed these days, and Lewis said some churches still do funerals and some do not. Virtual services are quite frequently provided.

Our conversation was extremely enlightening. Lewis shared that knowing exactly how many of the decedents were COVID positive or died of COVID is not an exact science. There is information that the Health Examiner has, there is information that the Coroner has, there is information placed on the death certificate, and there is information the family has, and they don’t always agree. There is a tendency for African Americans, especially in faith communities, to want to “celebrate the life of” the loved one, and they may not want it made public as to what the person really died of… (think AIDS). “We cannot do that as we have in the past,” he said, “and so we have more of a written and verbal style of celebration now with phone calls and emails, etc.”

Additionally, there are other unknowns at work. “When does the virus die in the body?” he posed, and it is a genuinely unanswered question. There is no guidance from the professional organizations and agencies. It could be 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours, or more, so we have to treat the body, the remains, as though they were actively contagious.

It’s a scary thought that even though our loved one is dead, the virus inside them may not be.