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Interview: Ocala pastors agree to moratorium on indoor funerals and memorial services

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The Rev. Eric Cummings, shown here in his role as a Marion County School Board member, is among dozens of pastors joining in a moratorium on indoor memorial services and funerals. They'll be hold them outdoors. Image: MCPS via YouTube

Twenty-seven pastors and six funeral homes in Marion County have signed onto a moratorium on indoor memorial services and funerals, holding them outdoors until the end of the year.

They are hoping to keep their communities — mostly communities of color — safe amid the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Three pastors spoke with WMFE’s Joe Byrnes — the Rev. Eric Cummings of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Bishop James David Stockton of Greater New Hope, and Dr. Rhella Murdaugh of Mount Zion A-M-E Church.


WMFE: Rev. Cummings, as a church leader I think you know better than most how this pandemic has caused so much suffering. Can you talk about how it has affected the families you know and your church community?

REV. CUMMINGS: It’s affecting us in such a drastic way that, you know, many of us are Saturday after Saturday after Saturday, multiple times on Saturdays, we’re at funerals, we’re dealing with how this pandemic has not only made people sick but has transitioned them to death.

And because of this pandemic and how it’s affecting us as a community because we know that affects black and brown people a little bit more — we’re more susceptible because of underlying health conditions — is putting a drain on some of the businesses and some of the resources in our community and the churches, as well. Pastors are spending time a lot, a lot of time trying to have funeral services and memorial services for these families, people that we care about, and it’s caused a drain, mentally, physically, everything.

We’re there. Where you may have done a funeral once or twice a year, we’re doing a weekly now, and some are two or three times on a Saturday, two or three. … A couple of weeks ago I was in a cemetery, and there were three graveside services going on at the same time, for the same thing, unheard of in my 20 years of ministry.

WMFE: Bishop Stockton, please tell me about the moratorium on indoor funerals and memorial services and how it came about.

BISHOP STOCKTON: It actually came about simply by asking a question, you know, What should we be doing? And from there, we made calls, calls were made to the six funeral homes that we use predominantly here in Marion County, especially the churches of color, and after speaking with them, we found the need to have a Zoom call of pastors and funeral directors. So it’s my understanding is about 80 to 90, invitations were sent out. And on that Wednesday evening, which was … a stretch, anyway because most of us are doing some kind of Bible study or something of that nature on Wednesday evening. Many of us, we ended our services, early to jump on this Zoom call where we literally talked out what would be the best practice to honor our loved ones who had gone on, allow our families and friends to start the grieving process, but also as shepherds, making sure that the flock stays safe. And when we really looked at it and understood the possibilities of what could happen if we weren’t leading from the front, we realized it was really a no-brainer. We need to come outside of these buildings,

WMFE: Dr. Murdaugh, is there also a concern for staff at the church and at the funeral home?

DR. MURDAUGH: Yes, absolutely. When I ask them to come out, I’m actually putting them — it’s almost like a firing squad, because they have no idea. They also want to be that staff that says, OK, I want to assist the pastor. So they come as wanting to be a part of something that also brings closure. But in all actuality, it could be their closure as well, later on.

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Joe Byrnes

About Joe Byrnes


Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.