New Orleans' Black Funeral Business Faces a Grim Future

Oakland Tribune, News Report + Video, Words: Kamika Dunlap, Photos: Jane Tyska Posted: Mar 23, 2006

New Orleans - Louis Charbonnet's mortuary business focuses on high drama and style, operating one of the only antique horse-drawn hearse services in town. It's what adds flavor to the New Orleans tradition of jazz-style funerals filled with street parades and brass bands.

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``People join in (jazz funerals) spontaneously,'' said Charbonnet, who has worked in the funeral trade more than 50 years and owns Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home. ``... You have the handkerchief flyin', butt shakin' and everything else that goes on, including pouring a little liquor on top of the casket.''

But these days the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina and the departure of the city's majority African-American residents has raised concerns for Charbonnet and other black funeral home owners like him.

Many black funeral directors and morticians who struggle to hang on say they were shut out of the recovery effort due to the limited subcontract work for the recovery and burial of bodies after Katrina. The state contracted directly with Kenyon International Emergency Services in planning the recovery effort. Kenyon coordinated the response teams, many of which handled the 1,080 bodies counted in Katrina's death toll.

None of the 14 black funeral homes in New Orleans received any subcontracts from Kenyon to bury storm victims. The only business they got was through families they had serviced prior to Katrina or by word of mouth.

In addition, the trend of corporate acquisitions pre- and post-Katrina continues to present a growing threat for many small independent black funeral home owners. Service Corporation International, parent company to Kenyon, is one of the largest funeral home chains in the country.

Umbrella holder

Hall Davis, president-elect of the National Association of Funeral Directors and Morticians, said the tradition of jazz-style funerals in a Mardi Gras atmosphere is one of a kind. The association represents about 2,300 black funeral homes across the country. ``New Orleans is probably the most unique place in the world with (black funeral) customs passed on from generation to generation,'' he said.

``It is going to take a lot of money to reproduce something that was naturally there.''

Many black funeral parlors are family owned and provide a sense of history and personal touch to their generations of customers. They are among the last types of social institutions including black churches, beauty salons and barber shops, that cater to the African-American community.

``If you go to a white funeral home you will have a funeral service and you will be treated fairly and properly, hopefully,'' said Renard Boissiere, who has worked in the business 30 years and owns Boissiere-Labat Family Funeral Services in New Orleans. ``But when we (black funeral directors) do our funerals we become part of the family. It's hard to explain when you have a feel and a culture for it.''

Boissiere's two funeral homes were flooded by Katrina and he lost more than $100,000 in equipment. Currently, he is operating out of Louisiana Undertaking, one of the few black funeral homes in New Orleans to survive the hurricane. Boissiere hopes to resume business again independently.

But many black funeral directors and morticians said they are disappointed they were not more involved with the recovery effort.

``It was a done deal with Kenyon,'' said Sandra Rhodes, president of the Crescent City Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, which represents New Orleans and the surrounding area. The state hired Kenyon to organize the recovery and burial of bodies after Katrina. The company also provided services at the World Trade Center in New York and after the tsunami in Thailand.

Bob Johannessen, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said Kenyon was ultimately responsible for hiring subcontractors.

Rhodes, whose family owns Rhodes Funeral Home, one of New Orleans' oldest and largest black-owned funeral homes, was not contacted by Kenyon for subcontract work, she said. Officials at the state's office of minority affairs said they were unaware of any concerns of black funeral directors.

Robert Jensen, president and CEO of Kenyon International, said the company subcontracted with about 300 funeral directors and morticians and does not keep a record of their racial or other demographic information.

``We have over 1,000 people in our data base that come from all over the world with different walks of life ...'' Jensen said. ``We hire people based on skills ...''

In the months after Katrina, many black funeral parlors had served a smaller customer base because so many black New Orleans residents evacuated and scattered across the country.

New Orleans' pre-Katrina population stood around 500,000, and city officials estimate only 189,000 have returned.

For Arthur Hickerson, owner of Heritage Funeral Service, business has increased. He makes several trips a week to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to pick up ``ship-ins,'' bodies sent back home by loved ones to be buried. Many have died from Katrina-related stress and health problems.

Hickerson said his volume of business is up 20 percent and the majority of ship-ins arrive from Atlanta, Houston and Florida. The bodies he picks up from the airport's cargo area are loaded into his high-end hearse. At the end of his funeral services, Hickerson releases white doves into the sky. These kinds of personal touches separate him from the pack of other black funeral homes and white conglomerates, he said.

``People want a show and they are looking for the best show,'' said Hickerson. ``They want to be represented and that's what I have to offer.''

But industry officials caution funeral home owners from relying on ship-ins to sustain overall business. They say the spike is temporary and will drop in 9 months to a year.

The business from Katrina ship-ins is similar to the period in history when blacks living in the north at the end of World War II had died. Many of their relatives shipped the bodies of their loved ones back home to the south to be buried.

According to industry officials, people who experience tragedy take time to relocate but eventually prefer their loved ones to be buried near their new place of residence.

Karla Holloway, author of Passed On: African American Mourning Stories and a professor at Duke University, said Katrina has changed the African- American undertaking industry. There are fewer full-service funerals and more grave site burials. ``Grave site services are done generally for someone with no relatives and has not been characteristic of funerals in the African-American community,'' she said.

Black funeral home owners have lost what Holloway calls ``neighborhood memories of a clientele,'' or serving rosters of families.

The uncertainty about what the city's population will look like in the next three to five years concerns many black funeral home owners who will have to win over new families.

Industry officials say the majority of blacks are still buried by black funeral directors. But as generations change, so does their loyalty to black funeral homes.

Many blacks are attracted to corporate-owned funeral homes because they are more modern and offer credit to families who cannot afford funerals.

``Younger black folks seem to have no problems breaking traditions because it can be more convenient,'' said Holloway. But Charbonnet hopes his old-fashion, horse-drawn hearse carriages _ the white for women and children and the black for men and dignitaries _ will be the vehicle to help carry on the unique culture of jazz-style funerals in New Orleans.

Kenneth Mallory, staff writer for The Afro American Newspaper, contributed to this report.

Sidebar: The Art of African American Embalming



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