Funeral gatherings became doubly tragic vectors of the coronavirus in the last month, leading to local funeral directors pushing for the city to institute a 10-person limit for all funeral services. But that came after one mid-March funeral that likely produced a cluster of eight COVID-19 cases among congregants, including 83-year-old Tessie Henry.
Henry is memorialized in a Chronicle piece today, discussing the irony of how she loved funerals, and was jokingly called a "funeral chaser" by friends and family. She served as head hostess at Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church, handing out Kleenex and offering hugs at funerals for people she didn't even know — and she'd meticulously planned her own funeral, at which she wanted everyone to wear white, and she wanted "Amazing Grace" to be sung.
But it may have been a funeral, or another church activity, that led to her being infected with the deadly coronavirus sometime around March 15. The Chronicle does not provide an exact date, but family members say that Mrs. Henry attended a funeral for the son of a friend who had just died, and she began feeling sick "a few hours later." The piece also says it was "that same week" that Mayor London Breed and other Bay Area officials issued shelter-in-place orders — which would put her symptoms appearing on March 15, because those orders came on the morning of March 16.
Just a week later, on March 23, Tessie Henry was rushed to Kaiser Medical Center on Geary Boulevard, and she tested positive for COVID-19 that night. Unfortunately, she had not received a test despite her severe cough when her daughter took her twice to an outpatient clinic during the week prior — apparently because she did not have a fever. She would be dead within four days, on March 27, becoming San Francisco's fourth victim of the coronavirus.
And, sadly, she had to die alone without any family visiting her. We only get the word via the Chronicle that in one of her last phone conversations, she used what they say was her "favorite word" in saying, "Tell the world I’ve got this shit."
Mrs. Henry's own funeral and burial had to be sparsely attended, which her family says is so sad because it was the opposite of what she would have wanted.
Funeral directors in the Bay Area have spoken up about the dangers of people gathering — with their guards down, emotional, and focusing on their own and other peoples' losses, social distancing is nearly impossible. This led to a revised public health order in SF and five other Bay Area counties on March 31 limiting funerals to 10 people.
Mission Local spoke to several area funeral homes last week, with Driscoll's on Valencia Street reporting that it had been enforcing the 10-person rule, only to have a large gathering show up in their parking lot at a recent funeral nonetheless.
"Obviously, 10 is quite difficult for families," says Dan Duggan, owner of Duggan’s Serra Mortuary in Daly City, speaking to Mission Local. "Usually the immediate family is more than 10."
And so it was for Tessie Henry's family. But much as has happened in cities around the globe, funerals and memorial services are something that need to be postponed or reimagined. NPR reported two weeks ago on an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey where people refused to let go of funeral rites and customs, and where at least five rabbis had already died from the virus as a result.