Number of Black Funeral Homes Dwindles Across US Since 1950

When Carolyn Hoxie's mother died, Edward Loche was among the first to know.

The Houston Chronicle reports he has buried several of Hoxie's relatives over the years. Though Hoxie's family moved out of Fifth Ward, they always sought the services of Ross Mortuary.

We had to come back," Hoxie told Loche as they reviewed her mother's death certificate.

For more than 35 years Loche has been part of a tradition of black funeral directors in the United States that offer a trusted service to generations of African-American families seeking dignity for their deceased loved ones.

Loche's two children work for him, and now his grandchildren take part in the family business from time to time. But as family-owned black funeral homes go under, or sell out to mortuary conglomerates, Loche's story, the tradition of a family unit caring for their community's dead, is becoming a rarity.

When Hoxie finished signing the required paperwork in Loche's office, she unfurled a plastic bag. It contained a few of her mother's accessories, including a tube of lipstick she wanted to show him and his daughter, Edwina Loche Barrett.

"Gotta have that lipstick color," Hoxie said, "that's her favorite color."

As Hoxie moved to place the bag on Loche's desk, Barrett stepped forward. The two women shared a silent smile as Hoxie gently placed the items in Barrett's cupped hands.

When Hoxie then turned to give Loche a handshake, he shook his head.

"Oh no, let's get a hug," he said with a chuckle. "We don't do that here."

Loche's business, Ross Mortuary, has been overseeing end-of-life care at 3618 Lyons Ave. in Houston's Fifth Ward since 1938. It was a time when segregation prohibited African-American families from seeking funeral services at white-owned institutions.

"(Black funeral homes) came about because someone had to bury our people," said Patricia Prather, a historian who grew up in Fifth Ward.

Black funeral directors, like black doctors and teachers, became respected community leaders across the segregated United States. They served on city councils. They participated in community fundraising. They attended Sunday service with their neighbors.

During the Civil Rights Movement, community meetings were held in black funeral parlors and funeral directors oversaw transportation for civil rights leaders, said Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, the nation's largest African-American deathcare trade group.

"They would transport Martin Luther King in hearses to keep him safe," she said.

As integration led to an exodus of black families from areas like Houston's Fifth and Third Wards, churches and funeral homes remained in place, Prather said. They didn't have to leave. Families that moved out always came home. Generations of families ended up using the same funeral parlor.

Families sought the professionalism these institutions offered for homegoing celebrations. It's a tradition that dates back to the time of slavery when slaves who wanted to return to Africa felt the only way they could was in death, their passing granting them freedom from bondage, Williams said. This ideology later changed to the notion of going home to heaven after death. Regardless of what home meant, the lively, celebratory nature of the service remained, one that wasn't offered by white funeral homes.

Yet the heyday for independent black funeral homes has come and gone.

In 1953, Ebony magazine reported there were 3,000 black-owned funeral parlors across the country. Today, there are about 1,200. At least a dozen are in Houston.

"The future is looking dismal," said Ramona Ellis, president of the Independent Funeral Directors Association of Texas.

Although there are multiple causes for the dwindling numbers, one of the biggest factors Ellis and others point to is a lack of interest among younger generations to take up the family business.

The absence of succession planning has created an opportunity for national corporations, like Houston-based Service Corporation International, known in the industry as SCI, to step in and acquire the independent funeral homes over the last 20 or so years.

A spokesperson for SCI couldn't precisely say how many black-owned funeral homes the company has acquired (its best estimate being at least 50), but the company owns an increasing amount of market share in the national death care industry.

In Houston, SCI most notably acquired Carl Barnes Funeral Home in the Greater Heights area. Tony Lynch, a company marketing director, said that once a family-owned funeral home falls under the Service Corp umbrella, the business gains access to a number of resources from the company's national network. Customers also get new access to national helplines for their planning needs.

Yet local independent funeral directors argue corporations and their acquisitions can't match their personalized service.

When a relative dies in the middle in the night, families that call Ross Mortuary get Loche or his children directly. The grieving often already know the funeral directors, or have attended a service for a friend put on by Ross Mortuary. These families, like Hoxie's, know they can count on Loche and his staff to get the job done.

On Oct. 6, 2018, employees of Ross Mortuary stood at the ready as family and friends of the late Ether Mae Fentis joined her daughter, Hoxie, at Mount Horem Baptist Church.

"We're here for a homegoing celebration, Amen?" asked the pastor, Dr. Thomas Freeman.

"Amen," the guests responded in unison.

At the service's end, Hoxie and her immediate family were directed over to the two parked limousines that would escort them to a Pearland cemetery.

When Hoxie first contacted Loche about transportation, she requested only one vehicle. When she later asked for a second, an amendment that would add $350 to her bill, Loche provided it at no extra charge.

"We're profit-motivated," Loche said, "but we care about our families."

To Loche and other black funeral directors in Houston, the work they do, and intend to keep doing, isn't a job. It's a ministry.

These funeral directors continue to counsel the bereaved well after a loved one's death. They still greet these families around town, send their kids to the same schools and stay abreast of the neighborhood news.

Dr. Suzanne Smith, a history professor at George Mason University and author of "To Serve the Living," noted that the obituaries and programs kept in black-owned funeral homes are historic records of generations of African-American families.

"African-American history is held in these establishments," she said.

As a part of the community, black funeral directors also understand the financial needs of the mourning. Local independent funeral directors noted that often families come in with little money for a full service. Price adjustments are often made. In cases of families who have no disposable funds, funeral homes will create fundraisers with local churches and other community groups to cover the costs. It's a service independents argue their corporate rivals can't match, and something they fear would be lost should their businesses die out.

At Ross Mortuary, Loche said he doesn't care whether families come from a River Oaks mansion or a Third Ward shotgun house. There have been cases when his funeral home, like others across town, became responsible for the burial of high-profile individuals, be they prominent community leaders or victims of highly publicized crimes.

Boyd Funeral Home in Third Ward oversaw the widely attended January funeral of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes who died after a gunman shot at her and her family.

Everyone deserves dignity, Loche said, and the best he and his colleagues can do is provide it.

"That's the only thing we have," Loche said, "trust."

Working anywhere outside of a funeral home never crossed Loche's mind.

Loche grew up in a funeral home. Often he'd do chores, including going out late at night with a flashlight to move family cars. He still sometimes goes out to wash hearses.

Helen Abernathy, the funeral director of McCoy and Harrison Funeral Home just south of the University of Houston, never got to see her father or grandfather in action as death care wasn't considered "a woman's business." But the family funeral home was still a part of her life. She now runs the business with her sister. Their slogan: "a family serving families."

The Rev. Michael Bill of Bill Clair Family Mortuary had no funeral home legacy to speak of when he was 15. He was merely seeking closure from his mother's death when a funeral director in his East Texas hometown of Henderson, counseled him and encouraged him to consider learning the trade as a way to pay it forward to others in grief.

"In the corporate world you're a number," Bill said. "Here, you're a person."

Bill has gone on to serve more than 320 families a year. Abernathy said her average is 400.

Regardless of how each of them came to run a funeral home, Loche, Abernathy and Bill all agree that the work is a calling not everyone can fulfill. After all, it's not so much dealing with the dead as it is interacting with the living. And the grief can take various forms, including anger.

"You have to have a certain personality," Abernathy said.

Whether younger generations have what it takes to continue the tradition of running black-owned funeral homes is the question funeral directors say the industry now faces.

Leaders of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association worry about communities losing a trusted neighbor when independents disappear. They know these funeral homes often double as bail bond lenders in heavily policed communities and they know corporate prices for funerals can be hard for community members to afford.

"Funeral homes, just like the barbershops, work to keep money in our communities," Williams, the trade group's executive director said.

In an effort to keep up interest in the next generation, Bill offers internships at his Third Ward funeral home to get younger workers through the door, offering a first look at the trade the way his hometown funeral director did.

The trade group will host its 40 & Under Funeral Directors Leadership & Enrichment Summit in Dallas Feb. 10-12 as a way to improve outreach among younger members.

At Ross Mortuary, Loche's daughter has been bringing her three children to the funeral home since they were infants. Her 7-year-old talks of one day running grandpa's business. Her bilingual 14-year-old already helps out as a translator for Spanish-speaking clients.

Though she has bachelor's and master's degrees in education, and worked at schools for six years, when Barrett's parents called asking her to come work at the funeral home, the answer was obvious.

"It's a legacy that I couldn't let go," she said.

In 2018 alone Ross Mortuary served more than 400 families. It offered Barrett, her brother and her parents more than 400 chances to make a difference.

At Houston Memorial Gardens Cemetery, with the midday October sun high in the sky, Ross Mortuary employee Yolanda Douglas guided Carolyn Hoxie over to the tent covering her mother's casket.

While other workers were busy directing relatives to the repast, Douglas stood at the casket's edge as the pastor gave his final blessings.

Before the immediate family got up to leave, Douglas let them all know they were free to take some of the flowers decorating the casket. Douglas herself picked out a handful of white lilies and yellow roses to fashion into a small bouquet which she placed into Hoxie's trembling hands.

Loche was unable to attend the service. He was busy making preparations for the next family in need.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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