| Florida Times-Union
A few steps into the James Graham Mortuary, on a table beneath a wall covered with framed certificates, next to “Our Daily Bread” bulletins, there’s a large jug with a hand pump and a sign that says: “Sanitizing Station.”
On the other side of the entryway, on another table, there’s a framed message that was here long before this year. It says: “James, Trust Me, I Have Everything Under Control. Jesus.”
The family that owns and operates this mortuary still believes this, even after all that happened in 2020 A.D. But they also believe in measures to control COVID-19. As mourners walk down the hall past a chapel used for services, signs remind them to wear masks. And when they reach the door of a second chapel used for viewings, another sign signs: “Although we all long for the coming day when this sign isn’t necessary … PLEASE CONTINUE TO REFRAIN FROM HUGGING AND HANDSHAKING.”
If you want to tell the story of 2020, you could start at the beginning. You could recall when people crammed into Times Square to welcome the first minutes of the year. How they didn’t think twice about hugging and kissing. How even the neat, symmetrical number of the new year carried a hopeful feel.
Headlines referred to us having “2020 vision.” In hindsight, we didn’t see what was coming.
So maybe a better way to tell the story of this year would be to start at the end. The final days of 2020, at a mortuary, talking to a funeral director — one of the last responders.
“We’re sometimes called that,” Jacquelyn Graham-Townes said. “Funeral directors are a different breed.”
This was a year when we rightfully applauded first responders, doctors and nurses, teachers and cashiers. But it was a year that also brought new challenges, physically and mentally, for those in an age-old profession that, by the very nature of the business, doesn’t stop in a pandemic.
In Bergamo, Italy, one of the first places to be devastated by COVID, undertakers have talked about how they’re still struggling emotionally with what they dealt with early in 2020.
In the spring, when COVID first hit America, some New York City funeral homes that typically handle about 100 deaths a year were taking care of more than 50 in a single week. Even though Graham-Townes didn’t experience anything like that in Jacksonville -— she figures the mortuary handled the arrangements for about five COVID deaths this year — it changed how funeral home directors everywhere did their job.
“It took away our personal touch, how we tend to our families,” she said. “It was a strain for me not to hug somebody. It was a strain for me not to be able to say, ‘I’m here’ and grab your hand. It was hard for me to not go to your house and make arrangements. … But, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t do those things. We had to make sure we didn’t get sick.”
In 2020, El Paso mourned the loss of Harrison Johnson, a longtime funeral director, mortician and embalmer. He was the pastor who just a year earlier led a service for a woman who died in the mass shooting at a Walmart. After the woman’s husband had said he didn’t want to mourn alone, Johnson organized a huge service, livestreamed around the world before the pandemic made such things more commonplace.
In 2020, Harrison Johnson was among the more than 300,000 Americans who died of COVID.
“I’ve known funeral directors who have died of COVID,” Graham-Townes said. “Not here in Jacksonville. But everyone was affected by this.”
This certainly is true. This was a tumultuous, exhausting, deadly year for Americans. But it was particularly so for African-Americans.
It wasn’t just that Blacks were disproportionately affected by COVID. This was the year of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; a year with protests and politics that brought to mind the 1960s.
In Jacksonville, it was a year that included a remembrance on the 60th anniversary of Ax Handle Saturday, the removal of a Confederate statue from a park renamed James Weldon Johnson Park, and an election where Duval County went for a presidential ticket with an African-American woman as vice president.
It also was a year when by mid-November the city already had reached the nearly unprecedented homicide total for all of 2019. And since then it has climbed to 173 heading into the final week of 2020, with 30 in the 32209 zip code.
James Graham Mortuary is in the 32209, in a triangular block north of where Moncrief Road and Myrtle Avenue cross. Standing on the front steps of the mortuary, you look across Moncrief to the baseball field at Simonds-Johnson Park. To the north, there’s St. Matthew Baptist Church. And in the air, if you time it right and the breeze is blowing from the south, there’s the smell of Holley’s Bar-B-Q.
So at the end of 2020 in Jacksonville, this seemed like a good place to start.
Not just another business
Jacquelyn Graham-Townes is wearing a red dress and black mask. She has the kind of personality that even when her face is covered, you feel like you can see her smile.
She’s 42. She and her husband, Shawn, have two children, a 20-year-old son who is about to get a degree from Tallahassee Community College and head to Florida State in 2021, and a 16-year-old daughter who is in high school.
It’s fairly easy to explain how she got into this line of work. It’s the family business. Her father is James Graham. But it goes beyond that.
One of her grandfathers, her mother’s father, was a funeral director in Alabama. That’s where she was born before moving to Jacksonville as an infant. Her father is one of seven children. One of his brothers, Marion, started a mortuary here in the 1970s. When Marion needed some help, he contacted James. And after James got some experience and went to mortuary school, he opened his own funeral home on Moncrief Road.
It’s been operating there since 1987.
It’s more than just another business. It and other funeral homes are cultural institutions, alongside the church in African-American communities. It’s part of a connection that predates 1987, involves segregation, but goes all the way back to slavery. Suzanne Smith wrote about this in her 2010 book, “To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death.”
“For African Americans, death was never simply the end of life, and funerals were not just occasions to mourn,” Smith says. “In the ‘hush harbors’ of the slave quarters, African Americans first used funerals to bury their dead and to plan a path to freedom. Similarly, throughout the long — and often violent — struggle for racial equality in the twentieth century, funeral directors aided the cause by honoring the dead while supporting the living.”
Fifty years ago, funeral directors played key roles in the civil rights movement. Beyond what you might expect — organizing the large funerals for Medgar Evers and others —they offered their buildings as safe havens for meetings, their vehicles for transportation and their manpower for support. Moments before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the second-floor balcony of a Memphis motel, he was talking to Solomon Jones — a driver from a local funeral home who was chauffeuring King around town in a white Cadillac owned by R.S. Lewis and Sons Funeral Home.
n recent decades, though, there has been a shift in the business as mom-and-pop mortuaries have been bought up by conglomerates. It’s estimated that there are about 1,500 independent, Black-owned funeral homes in the country today, down from twice that not too long ago.
Several hundred remain in Florida, including some in Jacksonville. James Graham Mortuary is one of them.
Jacquelyn started helping her father shortly after graduating from high school in 1997. She got her license 10 years later. And in 2020, on the day her father turned 72, he gave her a new title and responsibilities — manager of James Graham Mortuary.
Not that any amount of traditional training completely prepared her for 2020.
Year without hugs and handshakes
She remembers what she was thinking when 2020 began, a time that now feels eons ago.
“I was hopeful,” she said. “As women, we do the whole ‘I’m going to be healthier this year, I’m going to control my weight, this is the new me.’ For me, my motto was, ‘This is my year.’”
In unexpected ways, it did become her year. While managing the mortuary, she dealt with challenges that her father, uncle and grandfather never faced.
She remembers the exact day when it really hit home that 2020 was going to be different.
March 15. That’s her son Shawn’s birthday, the day she became a mother 20 years ago. They had plans to take a family cruise. But on that day, with news of COVID canceling events left and right — this would’ve been the Saturday of The Players Championship — she tried to contact Carnival to cancel their trip.
She couldn’t get through on the phone. So she sent an email. When she heard back almost immediately — saying she’d be refunded all of her money, no cancellation charges — that’s when it really hit her.
“When they did that, I realized, ‘Oh, God, we’re in trouble,’” she said.
As cruise lines and so many other businesses on land came to an abrupt halt, the funeral home business did not. But it changed overnight.
She started meeting with families via Zoom. “Homegoing” services were limited to 10 people, spaced out, wearing masks, no hugging and handshakes.
She remembers one particular service in March.
“I had to funeralize someone who was part of my village,” she said. “She was one of my teachers, one of my mentors. And for me to tell this family, I can only have 10 people and you all have to be spaced out? It tore me up.”
But she pulled herself together and insisted that this is how it had to be done — to protect her staff, herself and the family.
“You hear about what happened at other places,” she said.
In April, when Albany, Ga., had one of the highest COVID infection rates in the country, the outbreak was attributed to a large funeral that had been held in late February, several weeks before the dramatic shutdowns of the spring.
That one funeral is believed to have led to many more.
It wasn’t just the direct impact of COVID, the services for those who died of it. Every service since mid-March, no matter what the cause of death, was affected by the pandemic.
On April 10, a mother and her 3-year-old son died in a car crash on Interstate 10 near Cassat Avenue. James Graham Mortuary handled the arrangements for Aasha Belinda Tinson and Jordan Bass.
With many loved ones unable to attend — partly because of the attendance limitations, partly because of the inability to travel — the mortuary livestreamed the service. Friends and family near and far watched on laptops and phones.
That was a first for the mortuary. By the end of the year, they had their own equipment and it was routine — and something that Graham-Townes says will continue after we’ve made it through the pandemic.
As the story of this year is told, it inevitably includes what happened May 25 in Minneapolis. That’s when George Floyd was killed, sparking waves of protests across the country. As the mother of a 20-year-old son, that hit Graham-Townes particularly hard. She recalls constantly praying for God to protect her son in Tallahassee.
She also recalls what she did five days later in Jacksonville: bury William Brown Jr.
Brown, 34, was one of this year’s homicide victims. He was shot and killed in a domestic dispute at an Arlington Apartment Complex.
That loss, and the story behind it, stuck with Graham-Townes. And it was followed by a death in June that still affects her. A 2-year-old boy shot himself in a Panama Park home. She recalls getting his body ready for the funeral, trying to comfort the boy’s mother and brother, struggling to maintain her own composure.
“One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “He was absolutely breathtaking. He looked like an angel, what you’d think an angel would look like. That’s how beautiful he was. That was so hard for me that I ended up not working the funeral.”
She worked many others, including burying one of her father’s best friends, a man who did much of the woodwork inside the mortuary.
If you scroll through the mortuary’s obituaries for 2020, you see some other young faces. But mostly you see men and women who lived long, full lives — veterans, ministers, business owners, grandparents — and died of a variety of causes.
James Henderson, 83, was salutatorian at Stanton High School, went to Morehouse College, served in the Air Force, became a minister and was married to his wife, Eunatee Tyner Henderson for 60 years. They had five children and “a host of grandchildren.”
One of the last homegoings of the year was for Doris Haggins.
Ms. Haggins was 107. She was born in 1913. She lived through a pandemic that started in 1918, the Great Depression, Jim Crow laws, wars, moon landings, 27 presidential elections and, 100 years after the world overcame one pandemic, the arrival of another one.
If you want to tell the story of 2020 — with a backstory of more than a century — you could do a lot worse than starting and ending with the life of Ms. Haggins.
A new year is a symbolic reset. And these days we all welcome that. Jacquelyn Graham-Townes is optimistic about 2021. She expects that we’ll still be wearing masks for a while, but the vaccines give her hope that 2021 will be different.
She wants to travel again, maybe finally do that family cruise for her son’s 21st birthday. But beyond the big things, she wants to do some little things that, with 2020 hindsight, will seem huge.
Take the sign next to the chapel entry, the one about how we all long for the coming day when that sign isn’t necessary.
She’s looking forward to that day, to taking down the sign, to hugging and handshaking.