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A family’s ordeal burying a loved one in the age of COVID-19

With tears streaming down their faces, Brenda Maria Saunders’ family was forced to peer through the fence at Woodlawn Gardens to try to view her burial. Family members were further horrified that strangers had to be enlisted with pallbearing duties to carry Saunders’ coffin to her final resting place, while they stood outside holding onto the gates.

Saunders’ funeral service on Saturday took place as the country attempts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and under wide-ranging orders from Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, one of which allows for only 10 people at a gathering of any kind nationwide. Saunders had five children, two of whom are female.

“We did not have enough people to carry her body in,” said daughter Inderia Saunders-Lindeman of the graveyard experience. “It was absolutely horrid. It was like living in an alternate reality. We had to get two of the guys who were working around there… They were in scruffy short pants and T-shirts and they had to come help lift the coffin. This time we have all kinds of family members outside the gate, standing up peering through the fence, holding onto the gates, crying from the outside.”

Saunders succumbed to pneumonia on March 2 in Annapolis, Maryland. Her body was flown home on Thursday, March 19 for the Saturday, March 21 funeral, three weeks to the day she died after receiving medical clearance to ensure she did not have the new coronavirus.

A portrait of Brenda Maria Saunders at Sweeting’s Colonial Mortuary.

“We didn’t have the option of delaying her funeral, because we had to lay her body to rest, so not only are we dealing with all of this, then Thursday night we hear the order and it starts Friday. Family’s already here.” 

The Saunders children scrambled to adjust after announcing a service at Faith United Baptist Church and ordering 700 funeral booklets for the droves of people expected to attend. Their mother had been involved with numerous organizations.

Saunders was also survived by four grandchildren, three step-grandchildren, a son-in-law and eight siblings – making her immediate family alone well outside the government-mandated 10.

They decided to hold the service at the Sweeting’s Colonial Mortuary and not tell anyone outside the immediate family.

“Regardless of what was happening, we knew people would show up on Saturday, so we made the adjustments and only close family really knew that we were going to go to the funeral home, and we wouldn’t have to deal with the crowds we would have had to deal with otherwise.”

They notified people that they were canceling her homegoing service and would have a private service with the intention for a public memorial in the future when the country returns to normalcy.

“The Sweetings adjusted quickly. They have different viewing rooms and allowed 10 chairs in the room where my mom was, 10 chairs in another room and another 10 chairs in a third area, so everybody was in the same building. It was quite surreal to be in one room with 10 family members and know that 10 other key family members were across the way – that they were singing while we were singing, that we could hear their voices in the hallway. It was quite strange. It was quite tragic actually,” said Saunders-Lindeman, who broke down crying. “She did not deserve this. She was a jovial person who loved to celebrate life with her friends and her family. As all older traditional Bahamians, she would always remark about what she wanted at her funeral – the songs she wanted, and this and that – and these are the things that we couldn’t do for her at that time, so we would like to do that at a memorial much later for her.”

Saunders-Lindeman knows her family is not the only one faced with challenges of burying family members during this time when social distancing are the watchwords. Her advice to others is to have a discussion with the funeral home and graveyard officials to speak about how the burial can be done, not just effectively, but in a more compassionate way.

“While we understand why, and the environment we’re operating under, and understand the implications of people in close proximity to each other, and the risk that it not only presents to ourselves, but to those we may come in contact with, however this is an extreme circumstance – one that should have allowances for adjustments…adjustments being at the gravesite itself. Allowances for pallbearers. Six people are needed to carry a coffin. One of my brothers was on crutches, so he was out as a pallbearer, and they were adamant at the graveyard that they couldn’t let more than 10 people in. There could have been allowances for rotations of persons in the graveyard – five out, five in.”

Saunders-Lindeman said she feels her family could have effectively distanced themselves socially at the gravesite.

“A graveyard is an empty place with nothing but dead bodies around – there’s more than enough space. We had family members who just wanted to drive the car in next to the burial plot and stay in the car so that they could feel a part of it; they weren’t even allowed to do that.

“It was awful. It was absolutely awful,” she said breaking down again in tears. “It felt like a nightmare. And it was a fight on that day. I couldn’t even grieve in peace.”

While she credits the Sweetings with being able to adjust quickly in the changing environment, which allowed all of her immediate family to not be cheated out of a service, she says she still feels like she’s been cheated out of something.

“She did not deserve the burial she received,” said Saunders-Lindeman of her mom whom she described as a “social butterfly” who loved to celebrate life with family and friends.

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Shavaughn Moss

Shavaughn Moss joined The Nassau Guardian as a sports reporter in 1989. She was later promoted to sports editor. Shavaughn covered every major athletic championship from the CARIFTA to Central American and Caribbean Championships through to World Championships and Olympics. Shavaughn was appointed as the Lifestyles Editor a few years later.

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