Pandemic fear: Church to apologize for funeral refusal

Church’s music minister died of COVID-19

By Janet Mcconnaughey
Associated Press

Noel Alexander had helped build Pine Hill Baptist Church in west-central Louisiana. He’d been its music minister, served on numerous committees and he and his wife kept the church’s books. After he died from COVID-19 at age 79, his visitation and funeral were scheduled for the church he loved.

But his family said that when they arrived, they were told they couldn’t hold either the visitation or the funeral in the spacious building currently used for services because of the pandemic. And, they learned, the funeral director had been told he’d be met with a gun if he tried to bring the body inside.

“It was scary devastating,” Donna Hunt, one of Alexander’s six children, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

The church’s pastor, Tri Evans, had approved of the services for Alexander but was not there when they were supposed to take place. Instead, two church officials were on site and were the ones that told the family the funeral couldn’t take place.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Evans said the church voted last Sunday to apologize to the family and create a memorial fund in Alexander’s honor to provide funeral flowers and food -- something Alexander often helped with.

Evans did not want to go into specifics about what happened but suggested the church officials who made the decision to bar the funeral services were scared.

“There was a lot of fear. Unfortunately, on many levels, that’s the world we live in now. (People) try to navigate it and sometimes make big mistakes,” he said.

Alexander was among 824 people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Vernon Parish and 31 who have died, according to state statistics.

The living center is as big as a gym, and the seats are 6 feet (2 meters) apart because church has been held there every Sunday, Lisa Alexander said.

Sharyn Terrell, Noel Alexander’s wife, said she had checked to make sure other funerals had been held there and to ask whether the family would need to turn on the air conditioning and ice machine -- something her husband had usually done for funerals.

She was supposed to be at the building at 3:45 p.m. on Aug. 11 but was running late. Visitation was to start at 5 p.m., but a few minutes after five one of the church officials called her and said the viewing wouldn’t be held there.

Evans said he learned of the impasse at a hospital in Lafayette, 300 miles south, where his wife had given birth to twins the previous day.

“I tried to fix the problem and settle it down,” he said. “It’s hard to do that over a great distance and over the phone.”

At first, family members said, they were told the problem was that the church would have to be deep-cleaned after each event, for a total of $5,000. “We agreed that we’d be more than happy to pay that,” said Tim Alexander, one of Noel Alexander’s three sons.

Then, Lisa Alexander said, the family was told that “if one person coughed with COVID it would get in the air conditioning and everybody would be at risk.” She said her response was, “If my mask works and your mask works, what’s the problem?”

Eventually, the funeral home agreed to hold visitation there and the family decided to hold only a graveside funeral service on Aug. 12.

“That cemetery was full. There were 300 or 400 people there,” Terrell said.

Told that the church planned to apologize, she said, “If that makes them feel better. The harm was done.”

The family agreed that Noel Alexander would have hated the split and tried to make peace.

“Even if he was slighted — and he’s been slighted many times — he would just grin and bear it and not have any harsh words,” Tim Alexander said.

Asked if she could forgive what happened, Terrell said, “I can. It may take a little while but I can.”

But that doesn’t mean she’ll attend the church again. She said she expects to return only to return its account books.

“I really liked the church. But I’m not going back. There’s too many other churches around,” she said.