Pondering Easter Sunday, Remembering a Funeral

Gatherings involve risk at the moment.

Easter is the holiest day in Christianity and church attendance is also a huge social activity in Evangelical communities–not to mention the family gatherings associated with the day.  As such I understand the disappointment, anger, and consternation that a lot of people are feeling at the moment regarding Easter services. The fact that there remains a partisan divide on perceptions of the virus and the appropriate responses thereto only deepens the complexities of the situation.

When I read James Joyner’s post regarding the issue in Kentucky it made me think of this story from the NYT: Days After a Funeral in a Georgia Town, Coronavirus ‘Hit Like a Bomb’

People wiped tears away, and embraced, and blew their noses, and belted out hymns. They laughed, remembering. It was a big gathering, with upward of 200 mourners overflowing the memorial chapel, so people had to stand outside.


Like the Biogen conference in Boston and a 40th birthday party in Westport, Conn., the funeral of Andrew Jerome Mitchell on Feb. 29 will be recorded as what epidemiologists call a “super-spreading event,” in which a small number of people propagate a huge number of infections.

This rural county in southwest Georgia, 40 miles from the nearest interstate, now has one of the most intense clusters of the coronavirus in the country.

Dougherty County, GA has a population of ~90,000. As of the latest tally from the NYT‘s coronavirus tables, it has 1,072 cases and 68 deaths. Without adjusting for population it has the second most cases in the state and the most deaths. (Fulton County, wherein sits Atlanta, has 1,417 cases and 50 deaths as of this writing).

A second funeral held at about the same time is also thought to have helped spread the diseases.

Now, we do not know how many of the over 1,000 cases in the county can be directly linked to those funerals. And, for that matter, we do not know how many funerals and like gatherings have taken place over the last month or so that produced no problems whatsoever. But we do know that every gathering holds the risk of a similar outcome.

And, of course, doubt can breed denial and frustration:

The warnings drove a wedge between people in Albany, said the Rev. Daniel Simmons, the senior pastor of Albany’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church, who, like others interviewed, said he questioned whether the funerals were in fact the sole source of the infections.

“It created fear: Who will be at the gathering that I’m going to on Sunday, that funeral, or that wedding? Do I go? Do I not go?” said Mr. Simmons, whose church was not connected to either funeral. “People began to say, were you at the funeral? That became a question.”

The city’s churches, he said, began to feel unfairly singled out.

“That is the focus: the church, the church,” he said. “It has done damage because there is stigma. There is almost this wall of hostility that has been raised between certain parts of the community and the church.”

So, a lot of people at the moment are going to feel as if the focus on Easter Sunday gatherings is an excuse to attack the faith. Remember that in many Evangelical churches it is taught that Christians are a persecuted group in the United States. Closing church and calling it “non-essential” plays into that narrative. Plus, many will claim that God will protect them in church.

To be clear, all reporting indicates that most churches are being responsible during this trying situation and holding services remotely. But the reason the Albany funerals come to mind is that it is a clear example that it doesn’t take much to lead to an outbreak.

Maybe if people gather they will social distance enough to mitigate against spread. Maybe people who aren’t feeling well will be more prone to stay home. But given what I see in my own neighborhood when I go for walks or what I have seen when doing supply runs, not everyone is taking social distancing equally seriously. And, of course, there is the problem of the infected but asymptomatic person. Any of this could create another viral “bomb.”

So while most churches across the country appear to be finding alternatives to gathering tomorrow, stories like the one James posted creates concern. And it isn’t the only example. Via Reuters, Some defiant U.S. churches plan Easter services, ignoring public health guidelines:

“Satan and a virus will not stop us,” said the Reverend Tony Spell, 42, pastor of the evangelical Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He expects a crowd of more than 2,000 to gather in worship at his megachurch on Sunday.

“God will shield us from all harm and sickness,” Spell said in an interview. “We are not afraid. We are called by God to stand against the Antichrist creeping into America’s borders. We will spread the Gospel.”

Spell has already been arrested and charged for previously violated the stay-at-home order, so I expect his defiance will continue (Louisiana church holds services, defying coronavirus stay-at-home order).

The best list of differing rules I could find is via the Religious News Service: See which states have religious exemptions in their stay-at-home orders.

There are numerous other examples of churches attempting to open, but staying within gathering limitations and social distancing from places as different as Jackson, MS and Philadelphia, PA. I can’t help but note that even if gatherings are limited to 10 people at a time, all six feet apart, that a lot of doorknobs, pews, and other surfaces will be touched over and over.

I just hope that we don’t see Covid-19 cases blossoming in various locations in the next 2-14 days because of these choices.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. grumpy realist says:

    At some point it’s useless. If they want to act like toddlers running out into rush-hour traffic, let them do so. Let. Them. Catch. COVID-19. And. Let. Them. Treat. Their. Own. Health. Conditions. Why are we continually on the hook to rescue people from the consequences of their own stupidity?

  2. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:
    The only problem with that is that they may spread it to the rest of us.

  3. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK: Beat me to it. Also, we have a long tradition of protecting those incapable of protecting themselves.

  4. CSK says:

    We do indeed.

  5. Moosebreath says:

    My dad (who had been under hospice care at home since January for late stage dementia) died about 10 days ago. Both of my brothers live in New York, and we strongly urged them not to come down for the funeral, though one wanted to take a Lyft from New York, stay in the car and then immediately return.

    We held a graveside funeral with less than a minyan (10 Jewish adults, needed to say certain prayers), with my wife sending it on Skype to my brothers and her parents. Other than my mom and I (as I needed to support her at times, and in general we are treating my mom as part of the household for distancing), everyone kept at least 6 feet apart throughout.

    Looking back, I think we made the right choices, and no one seems to have gotten sick over a week later. But I think we all still worry about this.

  6. de stijl says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I understand the frustration, but it is not cool to wish misfortune on folks.

    They are neighbors and family. If not yours, someone’s.

  7. de stijl says:


    You did the right thing.

    Your father and your mother taught you well.

  8. CSK says:

    My deepest sympathy on the loss of your father.

  9. @Moosebreath: I am sorry to hear of your loss and am especially sorry that you had to deal with his passing in these trying times.

  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So, a lot of people at the moment are going to feel as if the focus on Easter Sunday gatherings is an excuse to attack the faith. Remember that in many Evangelical churches it is taught that Christians are a persecuted group in the United States. Closing church and calling it “non-essential” plays into that narrative. Plus, many will claim that God will protect them in church.

    Yeah, persecuted in the US. Sometimes I feel such utter loathing for Christianity, especially those preaching the Prosperity Gospel crap. As I pointed out earlier: Persecuting Christians use to mean feeding them to the lions. Now, trying to keep them from killing themselves and those they love equals persecution.

    My neighbor is an older widow for whom her Catholic faith is very important to her. She volunteers not just for the local church but also a Church associated charity. She and I had this conversation 3 weeks ago. I could tell she was struggling with it but added my voice on the side of “Jesus will understand if you don’t go to church.” and “God helps those who help themselves.”

    It’s a sacrifice for her, I know it is, but her Priest says the same thing.

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I am obviously not of a religious bent but I thought I’d pass this along: Notre Dame Cathedral Holds Good Friday Service Almost a Year After Devastating Blaze.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    Remembering a Funeral

    In 1973 my best friend John sucked on the wrong end of his .22 rifle and blew his brains out. His girlfriend had broke up with him.
    I remember when he told me he was going to do it.
    I laughed. “You will not!”
    We buried him on Easter Sunday.
    I can still hear the anguished cries of his girlfriend crying out his name as she had to be pried off his casket at the cemetery.
    John and I used to sit on his front porch in the Summer drinking Grain Belt beer (99cents a 6 pack) and he would play his guitar and sing Old Man Take a Look at my Life…
    John was a decent human being.
    He never made it to 24.
    I still miss him.

  13. de stijl says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    I do not like Grain Belt beer. Don’t dislike Grain Belt beer either. It’s okay. It is decidedly American beer.

    If anything I recall it tastes too much of corn. Like bad bourbon does.

    I used to live exactly across the river from the huge super cool Grain Belt Beer neon sign. 20th floor.

    Downtown vs Nordeast. I choose both.

  14. Monala says:

    @Moosebreath: I’m very sorry for your loss.

  15. Moosebreath says:

    Thanks to all who expressed sympathy on the death of my father.

  16. Mister Bluster says:

    @de stijl:..Grain Belt beer…
    All I remember about Grain Belt beer was that it was cheap and when Grain Belt Dark came out sometime after Grain Belt it was the same price and the ingredients listed on the can were the same except for the added caramel coloring.

  17. Jen says:

    @Moosebreath: My condolences on the loss of your father, and that you had to navigate this under such challenging circumstances.

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.
    –Matt. 18:20

    As an evangelist who used to come to the church I attended as a child used to say “I didn’t say that; GOD said that.” I hope you were able to help your neighbor reinforce that “Jesus will understand.” I hope that she will be able to connect in some way that will be meaningful for her.

    As to the knotheads in various Red State locales, I wish that they were able to read their Bibles better than they seem to be able to, but they want the fight more.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: My wife and I have taken her into our very closed circle. She talks to her sisters on the phone. She talks to fellow parishioners on the phone. But we are the only ones she talks to face to face (and trade baked goods with, and prepared dinners with)

    I also hope I am able to help her connect in some minimal way that helps her. She and I have had a number of religious conversations, but I an atheist can not possibly replace that connection of faith. I know my limitations.

  20. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Fortunately, you don’t have to replace anything. All you have to do is be who you are and do what you can. And it looks like you’re doing that just fine by caring about her. That’s mostly what the connection of faith you speak of does. It’s all good. And thank you for caring and listening in spite of the obstacles.

  21. grumpy realist says:

    @de stijl: Sorry, no sympathy. If they want to “gather together” lock the doors after they all enter the church, put a watch outside, and don’t let them out for a fortnight or longer.

    Stupidity which ends up killing other people cannot be indulged by the rest of the community.