BOARDMAN, Ohio — For a memorial service, the dress code was pretty casual.
Members of the family of the late Rev. Fred Mayhew of Canfield gathered Wednesday afternoon at Trinity Fellowship Church – the nondenominational church he founded in 1984 – clad in the familiar red and blue colors of the Cleveland Indians.
“He was a big fan,” his daughter, Ellie Platt, of Poland, said. Platt is owner of Platt Insurance Group.
Mayhew died Saturday from heart failure following a short-term illness, one family members said was not related to COVID-19.
The nontraditional attire wasn’t the only – or even the most – unusual aspect of the celebration of life of the retired pastor.
Only Mayhew’s widow, Lyn; his sister, Gerri Madden; and the couple’s children joined the celebrants and a handful of others participating in the ceremony in the church, spread out in the 1,000-seat sanctuary in accordance with social distancing. A hundred white balloons floated above the pews, attached to them by strings.
Friends and family – similarly encouraged to wear their Indians or Ohio State University gear – sat in their vehicles in the church’s parking lot, where they watched a livestream of the service on Facebook. More than 80 vehicles were parked in the lot during the service and the livestream registered more than 160 views.
The unusual arrangements reflect the reality of grieving a loved one at a time when social distancing guidelines conflict with familiar customs and the basic instinct to offer comfort by as basic a physical gesture as a hug.
“These are unprecedented times we’re living in right now, but we wanted to make sure we had a proper sendoff, so why not a drive-in funeral?” asked Dan Madden, Mayhew’s nephew, who also is president of Stark Memorial Funeral Home & Creation Services and a certified celebrant.
Loved ones of the recently deceased across the country and the businesses that provide services to them now find themselves having to adapt to an environment that discourages, at least for the time being, large groups of people or even basic physical contact.
“We’re still caring for these families as best as we possibly can with the guidelines in place,” said John Wenig, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and a funeral director in Sheboygan Falls, Wis.
The limits on groups of 10 or fewer and social distancing “changes things,” he conceded. Those changes include shorter viewing times for groups of 10 people or less, scheduling several groupings for larger families, and limiting the number of people at graveside services to comply with guidelines. Celebrants are encouraged to be brief and do follow-up ministry though phone calls or emails.
Lane Family Funeral Homes, which has eight sites in the Mahoning Valley, has instituted similar policies to comply with state and federal guidance. Chapels also are disinfected after each service and larger chapels, such as in Austintown, are subdivided to permit back-to-back services without having to use the same room consecutively without cleaning.
“Technology is being harnessed at every opportunity possible. From making arrangements over the phone to emailing documents to livestreaming services on our Facebook page,” said Dave Knarr, director of corporate services.
Wenig also said his funeral home also has done livestreaming and has been well received. Many families who prefer the more traditional setup with the public viewing and service are scheduling those for summer.
“Serving families in this way is not ideal but it’s the best we can do right now,” he said.
“This whole pandemic has changed the way funerals are planned,” Madden agreed. As the state restrictions placed new limits on how memorial services could proceed, he said he began brainstorming new ideas for helping families celebrate the lives of loved ones.
One of the ideas Madden came up with was the “Hugs from Home” balloon program. Family and friends who are unable to attend a service can submit a message that is then attached to the balloon and put in the church during the service.
“The balloons have been a huge success. People are able to feel a part of the service,” he said.
Madden came up with the idea for the drive-in funeral only a few days before his uncle died. He didn’t expect to use it as soon as he did, but brought it up to the family because he knew his uncle was well known in the community and had touched many lives.
“We wanted to find a way that we could properly honor him and bring people in the community in, and to be able to follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and keep everybody safe at the same time,” he said.
“We actually appreciate the fact that it’s going to be a small, private ceremony but we also recognize that people want to be part of celebrating his life,” Platt said before the ceremony.
Delaying a service would have been “too difficult” for the family, she said. “We needed to find that closure and to do it now.”
Her father would have preferred a “small, private funeral” with just family, but she acknowledged many of the people he had contact with through the church would want to attend, which would have been “overwhelming for the family,” she noted.
“He would have preferred this — his sister and his children and very few others,” Lyn Mayhew said. “I don’t have to talk to a thousand people, because that’s what this would be.”
While her husband did not die of COVID-19, its ramifications “put us all in this situation,” she said. She was glad the format limited the exposure of others, including grandchildren who were watching the ceremony online, to the disease.
“I don’t want them with us. I don’t want them exposed,” she said.
Platt recalled her father as “an exceptional man.” He also was “an entrepreneur at heart” who owned a cleaning business before he felt the calling to go into Christian ministry, and founded The Lamb’s House on Youngstown’s south side before starting Trinity Fellowship.
“I look at my business today, and everything I know I feel like I’ve learned from him. Just such an example of leadership,” she said.
Mayhew’s top priority was connecting with people and being part of their lives, a philosophy Platt said carried into his role as a father. When the kids wanted to ride bikes, he rode with them.
“Our pain was his pain, and our joy was his joy,” she said during the service. “To this day, when something good or bad happens, my dad is the first person I want to call.”
People’s lives were “changed for eternity” because of Mayhew’s vision, said Ken Franklin, interim pastor at Trinity Fellowship and Mayhew’s nephew.
“He didn’t make decisions on what would be best for him. He made decisions on what God was telling him to do,” he said.
After the service, a processional of the mourners drove past the family to offer their condolences. Among the medley of songs coming from the loudspeaker was one that would have been familiar to the baseball fan: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Those who attended in the parking lot included Tom and Bee Smith of Canfield. Tom Smith wore Ohio State garb while Bee wore an Indians shirt and OSU earrings.
Bee Smith felt a strong emotional attachment to Mayhew, who was her brother-in-law.
“He was just always there, always had the right thing to say,” she recalled. “My father died when I was 18 so he was more of a father figure, too, as well as a friend and pastor.”
Both agreed with the decision to hold the services now rather than delay. “This gives you at least some sense of closure. It’s not as good as you’d like it,” Tom Smith acknowledged.
Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, and her husband, Josh, also attended. Platt’s and the Blackann’s sons have been friends since preschool. Though she didn’t know Mayhew well personally, it was obvious “how beloved he was by his church family and his real family,” she said.
“It was a well thought out, very unique service,” she continued. “Some friends where able to share their thoughts/prayers via the white balloons in the sanctuary and some were able to support in their cars. I applaud the creative thinking that went in to celebrating the life of Fred Mayhew.”
Platt said she also was pleased with the result.
“It was a beautiful ceremony and a good tribute to my dad,” she said. “I like that it was small and intimate and just included our immediate family. I could see us doing a funeral like that again in the future. Yet it was also nice to be able to share it with other people through livestreaming.”
Staging the funeral like that also took a lot of the pressure off the family. “Funerals can be so overwhelming, especially a large funeral like my dad’s would have been,” Platt said.
Pictured above: Ellie and Jake Platt, daughter and grandson to Fred Mayhew, and Dan Madden, Mayhew’s nephew and president of Stark Memorial Funeral Home & Creation Services.