words and photos by H.L. Comeriato

Dorene Sherman’s phone rings in the middle of the night. On the other end, someone asks for help. They’ve lost a loved one and they don’t have the money to pay for a burial or cremation, let alone funeral services that might cost thousands of dollars.

“We had a lot of people googling us and calling us from around the country,” Sherman says. “I was getting a lot of calls from Florida in the beginning. A lot of calls from Florida asking for help — that they lost their mother or they lost somebody.” 

Now, those late-night calls aren’t so unusual. But Sherman says the noticeable spike has been unnerving — an ominous mark of how devastating COVID-19 has been for families already struggling with health disparities and limited economic opportunities.

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Sherman founded The Final Farewell Project in 2017 as a way to assist families with the cost of burial and funeral services. She says she operates the small non-profit organization from her desk at home, working directly with families to help plan and pay for funeral, burial or cremation services. Since 2017, The Final Farewell Project has assisted 24 families in paying for a loved one’s final expenses, which Sherman says fills a sizable gap in resources for families facing an unexpected death with little or no savings.

But since the spring, instead of getting two or three calls every month, Sherman has been getting multiple calls per week. Over and over, people told her that their loved ones had died of COVID-19, or that they’d lost their jobs as a result of the virus and couldn’t help pay for a loved one’s final arrangements. 

“We never ask about people’s past,” she explains. “We never ask how [the person] died. We don’t dig into family issues. That’s not our role. That’s not why we’re here. We help people who just don’t have any other way to pay,” Sherman says. “And we’re here to help anybody.”

There are major gaps in the systems designed to assist families with the financial burden of burial and funeral services, and Sherman says plenty of families fall through the cracks. 

At Sommerville Funeral Services, Funeral Director Margo Sommerville says she’s worked with many such families over the last 20 years.

Sommerville was born into the business. Her father, Marco, opened Sommerville Funeral Services in 1978. In 2001, Margo took her father’s place as funeral director. 

Sommerville says that as a kid, she watched her dad build and provide community-centered funeral services with patience and compassion.

“He probably gave away more funerals than people paid for,” she says. “But that’s what we do. We’ve always been in the business of helping people.”

Sommerville sits on The Final Farewell Project’s Advisory Board, and says the kinds of care and service the project provides are absolutely crucial for families facing an unexpected death coupled with a financial crisis.

Full funeral service costs can average anywhere between $7,000 and $12,000, says Sommerville — a sum that most Americans aren’t prepared to pay in the event of an unexpected death. Between March and April, Summit County’s unemployment rate nearly tripled. And while those numbers fell slightly in May, Ohio’s economic instability is poised to have a lasting effect on already vulnerable communities. 

For Black families, footing the bill may be even more difficult. Black Akronites have already been affected by disparities in access to healthcare, educational opportunities, and generational wealth. Discriminatory policies and practices in housing and employment have made Black Akronites more likely to contract COVID-19 than white Akronites, to be hospitalized for treatment and to die from the virus. 

“When we started [The Final Farewell Project], I really had no idea what demographics we’d be helping,” Sherman says. “But we’ve noticed that over the last three years, of all the families we’ve helped, three [have been] white families.” The rest, Sherman says, have been Black or Latinx.

Sommerville says that Sommerville Funeral Services has served about 15 families that have lost a loved one to COVID-19.

“We are doing funerals differently than we’ve ever had to. We’ve had to get creative [and] inventive to really help families through this very difficult time,” Sommerville explains. “Because you still want to allow families to have the opportunity to celebrate the life of their loved one, to grieve, but in a way that is safe. And that’s been the challenge.”

In the chapel at Sommerville Funeral Services, every second pew is marked off with a thin rope. Individual chairs are spaced evenly across an otherwise empty room. 

Sommerville walks down a carpeted aisle and turns a dim corner. She taps an index finger against a thin plexiglass shield. This tri-fold barrier is designed to help musicians control volume levels while performing onstage. But when Sommerville spotted the shield, she saw a solution — a firm, transparent barrier to position around the casket during public viewings. Sommerville says the barrier helps keep family and friends from touching the deceased.

Sommerville says the virus has robbed families of the time and space to properly grieve. 

Once a person is hospitalized with COVID-19, they may spend anywhere from a few days to several months lying in a hospital bed, with limited human contact.

“You have a loved one who is literally on their deathbed alone,” Sommerville says. “And when we think about that — particularly when we think about [mourning] in the African American community — typically what we do is come to the bedside.”

“We want to be able to love or touch just that one last time, and COVID has removed that for families,” Sommerville adds. “Even when they come here after their loved one has passed, we still can’t allow them to have that last touch. Because we have to make sure that we’re safe.”

Researchers know relatively little about how long COVID-19 survives in the body after death, which means that families can’t grieve in the same ways they did before the virus.

At Sommerville Funeral Services, a mounted sign at the entrance directs visitors to the chapel, where they can give condolences and view the deceased, then exit immediately. All visitors are required to wear masks. If they don’t bring their own, Sommerville Funeral Services provides one.

For family and friends who aren’t able to travel, or who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, Sommerville Funeral Services offers free live streams of every service, and an online guestbook where people can interact and leave their condolences.

After the service ends, staff clean and sanitize surfaces with disinfectant. The process can be difficult, but Sommerville says it’s an important step in allowing people to grieve safely.

According to data analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control, the United States can expect to report as many as 175,000  total COVID-19 deaths by Aug. 8. Ohio, too, is expected to report more COVID-19 deaths in August than it did in July. As Akronites face a rising state and national death toll, Sommerville and Sherman say they want people to know that there are resources available.

Initially, Sherman says The Final Farewell Project had to turn away families in need as a result of COVID-19. The organization couldn’t keep up. But after receiving a grant from the Akron Community Foundation that allows them to offer additional assistance in light of the pandemic, including assistance for families who have experienced loss of income as a result of COVID-19. Sherman says The Final Farewell Project has assisted two families with final expenses since receiving the grant. “The money is there,” says Sherman. “Come to us, please.” 

Sommerville also says if a family needs financial assistance, it’s important to reach out.

“You don’t have to have a million-dollar [life insurance] policy to actually give a proper service and homegoing or celebration for your loved one,” Somerville says. “We try to make every single service here as meaningful, as impactful, and memorable as we possibly can for every family, no matter how much money they’re spending.” 

For Sherman too, helping families plan and pay for final arrangements has roots in personal experience. When Sherman’s friend, Lyle, died of complications from AIDS in 1987, she and her friends couldn’t claim his body. Now, Sherman has a special fund in place designed to help people with terminal illnesses plan and pay for their final expenses. She calls the program Lyle’s Project, in honor of her friend, and says she knows firsthand how traumatic it can be when families and communities don’t have the opportunity to properly grieve.

“[Families] deserve to see their loved one treated with dignity, and taken care of with dignity,” Sherman says. “We believe that everybody deserves to leave this life with dignity.”

The Final Farewell Project will host The Final Farewell Project Celebration of Life Awards and Fundraiser on Aug. 20 at 6 pm via Zoom. To register for the free virtual event, visit The Final Farewell Project on Facebook. The keynote speaker will be Kent State University shooting survivor Dean Kahler. 

The Final Farewell Project will also host an online auction between Aug. 14 and Aug. 20. To bid on an item, please visit www.32auctions.com/finalfarewellproject

To learn more about The Final Farewell Project, or if you are in need of financial assistance, visit www.finalfarewellproject.org.

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.

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