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They couldn’t have a funeral in N.J., so they had one at a St. Petersburg park. Via Facebook.

Family honors relative who died from the coronavirus.

They set chairs in the grass, 6 feet apart, facing the lake. They unfolded a table, draped it with a blue cloth. Turned it into an altar:

On the left, a white lily Joe Kennett’s sister sent. On the right, a laptop with a collage of family photos flashing by.

In the center, the crayoned picture that made Pop-Pop cry.

“All right, I guess we can start,” Joe said just after 11 a.m. Sunday. “Thank you all for coming.”

He looked out under the live oaks, where 14 friends and family members had gathered. He smiled at his young children in the front row. Nodded at his wife, who opened Facebook Messenger on her phone.

“You there, Shar?” she asked the screen, seeing his aunt. “I made a slide show. I’ll send it to you.”

Shar Kennett and her son were at their home in New Jersey -- more than 1,000 miles away. Joe’s sister logged in from Texas.

At the St. Petersburg park near his house, Joe’s wife maxed the volume on her phone and turned it to face him.

“As you all know, we’ve come together to celebrate a wonderful man, my Uncle Chris, Christopher Kennett,” Joe said. “We miss him. So much. It’s weird that just two years ago, he was hiking circles around all of us on Mount Desert Island, skiing black diamonds in upstate New York …

“He was a professor, the consummate teacher. Every time I talked to him, I learned something, even if it was just an off-color joke.”

Joe glanced up at his dad, whose head was bowed. Chris had been his dad’s brother, nine years older.

Joe was doing this for his dad.

***

In mid-March, when Chris’ family learned he was sick, no one really panicked. His wife, Shar, is an emergency room physician in New York City. Though she had a low-grade fever, she tested negative for COVID-19. Twice.

Their son Jonathan, who had to come home from college during the pandemic, got sick. Then got better.

Doctors told Chris he had the flu. His brother told him, “You’re the healthiest 77-year-old I know.”

In late March, Joe texted his uncle: Any man who can hike like you, I’m not worried.

His uncle texted back: But I have coronavirus.

Chris was born in Chicago and spent the last 23 years in New Jersey. He earned an undergraduate degree in sociology, a master’s in natural history, a PhD in evolutionary behavioral ecology. He thought about going into the seminary but wound up teaching high school and college, working as a nutritional consultant and videographer. He also cleaned up Boy Scout camps, designed exhibits for a children’s museum and built Habitat for Humanity houses.

His wife had been one of his college students. At 55, he had become a dad. His son, everyone said, was his greatest pride.

A picture of Christopher Kennett is displayed on the computer screen as part of a slide show tribute during a memorial service in the park at Round Lake in St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

In the hospital, Chris’ organs began to fail. After nine days on a ventilator, he died April 9. Like so many people lately, he was alone.

His wife had him cremated. Because of the quarantine, no one could have a funeral.

“We don’t know what Uncle Chris would have wanted because he never talked about death,” Joe said.

But funerals aren’t for the dead. They’re for the living. A chance to get together, celebrate a loved one’s life, support each other.

“I thought we needed something,” said Joe, a 38-year-old lawyer. “My dad, especially, needed some closure. He’s real religious. He was taking this real hard. It’s like a wound that was left open, that needed help to heal.”

Joe asked his aunt: What about a virtual funeral? He could set up something on his phone, connect with family across the country. Right away, she was on board. So were his brother and sister.

“Everyone,” he said, “except my dad.”

***

At the park by Round Lake, people wearing masks biked, walked dogs, pushed strollers with happy babies.

Beneath a cloudless azure sky, in the midst of the pandemic, life went on.

“He was a great man,” Joe said of his uncle. “And so wonderful with the children.”

From the phone in his wife’s hand, he heard his aunt ask: “Is anyone taping this?”

“We’re trying,” his wife whispered. “But you’ve got to mute yourself for now.”

Joe stepped from behind the table and took the phone. He motioned to his dad, who grabbed his Bible and stood up. Joe aimed the phone at him.

Tim Kennett speaks during a memorial service for his brother. Kennett's son set up the service. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

“It’s amazing how quickly we get choked up, isn’t it?” asked Tim Kennett, a trucker. He scanned the familiar faces, then opened the worn pages to First Corinthians. “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. And we shall all be changed.”

The day he learned he had lost his brother, he said: “I was just sitting there, doing absolutely nothing, grief-stricken, I guess. And this sweet little girl came and gave me a picture.”

He smiled at his granddaughter, Lennon, 4, who calls him Pop-Pop. He picked up the crayoned drawing and tried to speak. Then swallowed. “This is me, and this is my brother,” he said, pointing to purple stick figures that are holding hands. Blue hearts float above their heads. “The sun is out, the sky is yellow. And they’re together.”

He wiped his eyes. Then he looked up at the audience and laughed.

“I started crying. She ran away. She thought I hated the picture,” he said. “But I loved it. It was my sign. Like she was reminding me, ‘You’ll see him again some day.’ ”

Lennon Kennett, 4, drew this picture for her grandfather. It brought him comfort as he was grieving. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

He put the drawing down and stood staring at the grass. “I’m all teared up,” he told Joe. “I don’t know what comes next.”

Joe turned the phone around and asked his aunt, “Shar, do you want to say something?” She shook her head and kept her phone on mute.

Joe hoped his family had found solace, if only through cyberspace.

Some day, he told his dad later, we’ll have a real service. Everyone can be face-to-face. Maybe, even hug.

Tim Kennett holds the picture made by his granddaughter, Lennon, while she snuggles with her mom. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Related: Hear from Times journalists about covering this pandemic

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