Custom of Black Funerals Part of New Orleans Fabric

Afro.com, News Report, Words: Kenneth Mallory, Photos: Jane Tyska Posted: Mar 17, 2006

The following story is the second part of a story examining the issues facing the Black funeral industry in New Orleans. The story was produced as a result of a reporting fellowship sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Knight Foundation, along with New America Media. Read part one.

New Orleans tradition

According to Black funeral directors, the New Orleans funeral industry possesses many of the customs for which the city is renown.

Photo by Jane Tyska

“New Orleans is very unique in its burial customs,” said Davis.

One of the city’s distinguishable funeral customs he cited are its mausoleums that are built for “above the ground burials” because the city is situated “below sea level.”

Davis said other traditions set the city’s funeral industry apart, like jazz funerals that, with parades and horse drawn carriages, seem to take the form of parties rather than services for the deceased.

According to directors, the funerals have been held for many members of New Orleans’ African-American social and pleasure clubs.

Charbonnet, who said he is a member of two of the clubs, said they traditionally have held festive marches in the city, but as “resources” have dwindled, these activities have also.

And like the city’s once large Black population, some feel New Orleans’ overall culture might never be what it used to.

“ The food, and the culture and the dress code and the music, and Louis Armstrong and that whole Mecca of ideology of New Orleans -- it’s going to take a lot of money to reproduce what was naturally there,” said Davis.

A Louisiana Undertaking

Red tinted lamps, thick magenta drapes, burnt, carved wood crown moldings make up some of the scenery at the Louisiana Undertaking Company.
Author Kenneth Mallory

The more than 50-year-old funeral parlor is home to a handful of African-American funeral directors who have pooled together to serve New Orleanders desiring their help.

Among the directors operating out the Louisiana Undertaking are Arthur Hickerson – who said he worked at the Undertaking for 10 years before opening Heritage -- and Renard Bossiere, part owner and director of Bossiere-Labat Funeral homes. His two funeral homes, one on North Claiborne Avenue and one on Washington Avenue sustained damage from the storm.

Bossiere said that as a member of the Crescent City Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association, he and the other members decided that it would be convenient to operate out of the Undertaking. He started business at the place in January.

Jeffrey Jenkins, manager of the Louisiana Undertaking, said firms utilizing the Undertaking are getting along “extremely well,” and as before the storm, they are still enabled to personalize their services to the families that choose to patronize them.

“Basically, each firm has their independence and unique touch of courtesy and professionalism that they offer,” said Jenkins.

Meanwhile, Bossiere said his business has collected on part of his flood insurance, although he is unsure if the money will enable him to re-open his damaged homes.

“We’re hoping it’s enough to cover everything, but I don’t know if it’s going to be enough to get back in business,” he said.

But Bossiere hasn’t decided whether he will re-open his own places or remain at the Louisiana Undertaking.

“I may just stay here and work as a funeral director here,” he said.

Returning to New Orleans

Tyra Hinton, who said she was a lifelong New Orleans resident until two days before Katrina, is among the New Oleanders who have patronized the services of Black morticians after evacuating the city. A good friend, she said, referred her to Hickerson.

Living in Montgomery City, Texas now, she is unsure if she will return to New Orleans in the near future to live because of the precariousness of jobs, high cost of housing, and the fact that she has “a seven year old daughter to consider.”

Hinton, 32, and her brother desired her mother to return to New Orleans to be buried, although it was a “struggle” Hinton said, to scrape up the thousands of dollars of her own money to have her mom buried “at home.”

By burying her mom in New Orleans, Hinton is carrying on a family custom.

Everyone in her family, she said, has been buried in New Orleans -- her mother, she said, would be buried in the local cemetery where her grandmother and cousin are.

Her deceased mother, Cherokee Sincere, 51, died after enduring two strokes and a bout with depression. She said her depression arose from being away from New Orleans.

“She was very stressed out. She was also very depressed because of all of this happening and being away from family, being away from friends and not knowing whether or not we were going to be able to come back home,” said Hinton.

Sincere’s situation might be similar to the “stress” related demises that Black funeral directors say is attributable to many of the deaths they are seeing on their current client rosters.

“We’ve been doing business, but the fact is, a lot of them are Katrina-related deaths. And when I say Katrina-related . . . You’ve got people dying now who are dying of maybe stress,” said Charbonnet.

“We are receiving a lot of ship-ins. Persons are in stress from different reasons, coming back to New Orleans just looking at their property and dropping from heart attacks,” said Jenkins.

‘Showtime’

Hickerson is aware of the risks Katrina has posed to Heritage’s viability.

He has had “a lot of reservations” about re-opening, he said, but is moving forward.

“You take chances everyday you get up. I’ve just got to make the best of everyday and give good service,” he said.

Hickerson, who as a teen growing up in Amite, Louisiana, said he washed cars for a local embalmer, is intent on making sure that his business survives in the long run.

“I don’t want to have to work for anybody else,” he said. “I put up 30 years, and God knows, I have to make this work at all costs.”

The 1974 graduate of the Commonwealth College of Mortuary Science in Houston, Texas is confident that New Orleans ”population will return.“ He believes the acclaimed food in New Orleans in itself is enough to summon people home.

“This is the best food in the world, I’ll go on record with that,” he said assuredly.

He also thinks that the local Black mortuary industry will survive.

“We’re not going anywhere. The numbers are reduced, but eventually in a period of time, it will come back.”

Like Bossiere, Hickerson has made a claim on his flood insurance policy. Hickerson has been approved for a federal Small Business Administration (SBA) loan to assist in the recovery of his funeral business.

In addition to refurbishing Heritage, he has recently purchased a $65,000 white federal Lincoln hearse, he said.

Working in his favor, Hickerson said, is the fact that he has a lower overhead than other funeral homes, needing only to “do maybe two or three a month,” funerals month for his business to stay afloat.

But what might also work to Hickerson’s advantage is his aim to provide quality, meticulous service to his clients.

“I’m very particular about what I do,” said the dapper funeral director, describing the attention to detail he brings to his business including making sure the bodies he embalms appear “life like.”

“It’s the little things that make the difference. Detail. And that’s what I’m all about . . . It’s what I call ‘Showtime,’ said Hickerson. “People want a show.”

Kamika Dunlap, staff writer for the Oakland Tribune, contributed to this report.

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User Comments


Keith Ridley,IV on Mar 24, 2006 at 06:01:05 said:

This what we do. I have been in this business since I was age 8. I am an proud African-American age 38 now a 5th generation mortician whose family has been serving since 1874

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