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Structural-Institutional Disparities in the Funeral Industry

Published: July 23, 2020

July 22, 2020

Is There Structural/Institutional Racism in the Funeral Industry?

Since the horrific death of George Floyd, there has been an emotional upheaval, the likes of which our country has not experienced since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. We have watched the nightly news reports of protest marches across the country, as America has seemingly awakened to the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement affects all of us regardless of ones’ race/ethnicity, age, gender, religious beliefs or class, for as the Bible says, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” ( Matthew 22, verse 39).

In recent weeks we have witnessed State’s efforts to rid their government buildings and parks of the hateful tributes to the Confederate leaders that raised arms against the United States government during the civil war. Most of these statues were commissioned and raised during the Jim Crow era, a period when racist policies and practices were condoned and continued to be used to terrorize Black families throughout the country. Sadly, some thirty-two statue dedications occurred as late as the period between 2000-2016. Many state’s and cities’ government legislators/city councils are now working with communities to determine the fate of these statues. Further, many are also calling for the renaming of schools and federal military bases that were heretofore named in honor of infamous, confederate military leaders. Honors bestowed in spite of their tyranny against the Union and their ultimate defeat.

All of these efforts are long overdue and while they certainly provide some level of symbolic healing, they can only be viewed as symbolic. The deeper, more systemic disparities that are part of the very fiber of this country will require much more thoughtful, data-driven examination of how and why structural racism is so deeply embedded in our institutions. It will also require not only Whites, but also people of color to do some serious self-reflection of how we, perhaps unconsciously, have supported these policies.

Before this month’s Goode news is misconstrued, let us start by saying that this not in any way intended to cast aspersions on our fellow, White funeral homes for we view them as collegial competitors who, particularly family-owned businesses, struggle to keep their own businesses viable, though we daresay that their struggles may play out quite differently from Black/Brown owned funeral homes. Instead, it is merely our intent to lay out some historical underpinnings that offer a rudimentary explanation as to the why and how these differences came about as a way to promote deeper conversations and provide an initial answer to the question posed above. In so doing it might point up the need for our industry to possibly consider a need for reform along with all the other institutions that perpetuate racial/ethnic disparities in this country. It might also provide an opportunity for our own community to reflect upon how we may unconsciously sustain these inequities.

Historical Perspective

There is no argument that the very start-up and success of Black funeral homes was based upon the fact that during slavery, the Jim Crow era and subsequent years of segregation across these lands that Blacks have always cared for their own communities’ deceased borne out of an initial total disregard for African slaves and subsequent outright refusal to serve Black families. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning”. And, as is true for our churches is equally true of Black funeral homes. A condition that Black/Brown funeral Directors fully embraced by providing funeral services to the Black community for more than two centuries. 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 and understood the financial struggles of Black/Brown families and worked with them to provide lower cost, dignified funerals.

“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 death-care trade group.

Beyond their role in the Black community as full partners with local clergy, Funeral Home Directors were trusted for their knowledge of Black “going home” rituals and their adeptness at preparing culturally appropriate hair and cosmetology for Black families’ loved ones. Something that White undertakers historically were not inclined to support nor accustomed to doing.

However, over the last several decades with increased competition due to an excessive number of funeral homes in some geographic areas along with the influx of large corporate businesses into the funeral industry, there has been a significant relaxation of White funeral home’s willingness to now serve Black families. It may also, of course, be the added recognition that not all Black families are without means. While there are many Black families that still remain loyal to their Black/Brown-owned funeral homes which is often attributed to the funeral home’s long-standing affiliation with their places of worship as well as the multigenerational family ties that have been established throughout the years. There are many more Black families now opting to seek funeral services from a White funeral home, a phenomenon that puzzles many a Black/Brown owned-funeral home director, given the history of our people. Is it because they have the resources to do so or is it an unconscious buy-in to the mythical, “it’s better than” what a Black/Brown undertaker can provide? It goes without saying that Black/Brown funeral homes are all for equal access to whatever funeral services one chooses, during one’s time of bereavement for families should, by all means patronize the place where they feel most comfortable. We certainly would welcome the opportunity and be most appreciative if this were a two-way street where White families felt equally comfortable frequenting minority-owned funeral homes

The Myth of the Level Playing Field in the Funeral Industry

Let’s consider this “better than” thinking. Funeral Homes and Funeral Directors are all required by law to meet strict, standards for operating their funeral homes. The administrative parts of their business are very much the same. All required to disclose their price lists and provide a full explanation of what funeral proceedings will include. Black/Brown funeral homes contract with many of the same vendors which more often than not are White-owned companies. And, even though there may be a desire to utilize minority-owned manufacturers and distributors there is little or no data to identify how many such suppliers are minority-owned. These vendors provide laboratory equipment, mortuary supplies, caskets, limousines as well as other services such as printing and florist all in an effort to provide families with the most affordable funeral services possible. Of course, if it is our clientele’s preference, we can and do deliver whatever desired level of services money can buy. Seemingly there is no difference in what can be delivered by either a Black or White funeral home, however, upon closer examination it can be noted that differences do exist, many of which can mean success or failure for family-owned Black/Brown funeral homes:

• Are Black/Brown funeral homes facilities older looking, perhaps not as grandiose and manicured as some White funeral homes? Could it have anything to do with access to loans for capital improvements? A conventional, commercial bank loan may not be as readily available to Black businesses as it is to Whites. A case in point, if we consider the opportunities for additional cash flow to small businesses through the recent federal emergency Payroll Protection Program funding made available during the COVID- 19 pandemic, it was reported that the funding ran out in the first thirteen days. Those small businesses that already had relationships with commercial banks were able to secure loans during a period when many Black funeral homes were in the throes of keeping up with the overwhelming death toll the pandemic visited upon Black communities. They had little time to either establish a new relationship with a bank nor to file the lengthy, loan applications needed to secure funding. Federal SBA loans have been the most lucrative way for small Black/Brown businesses to secure low-interest loans, but even these resources involve lengthy processes that require proof of credit worthiness and assurances that the business will generate enough profit to repay the loan.

• Marketing has long been an important vehicle for a business’s success. Social networks and connections to the movers and shakers in a community are one of the sure-fired ways of becoming known. White funeral homes with roots in the community have long- standing, deep ties with traditional, Euro-centric community organizations, such as the Chamber of Commerce, VFW posts, the Rotary Club and the Knights of Columbus. Their Directors have also held positions on the City Council, planning boards and local White church councils all of which have served to widen their networks and place them in positions where they have opportunities to influence decisions that are beneficial to their businesses as well as reach a wider array of families in the community. Black/Brown funeral homes social networks are for the most part limited to Black places of worship for which, unfortunately today, many are struggling to keep their own doors open. Advertisements in local town newspapers have generated little, if any, more business for Black funeral homes.

• A cursory review of the price-point for White funeral homes’ services is significantly higher than that of Black funeral homes, providing them with a much higher profit margin. Pricing is set based upon what the market will bear. In White families, where intergenerational, wealth building have made it easier to access emergency funds to pay for funerals and where family members are more likely to have insurance policies, government pensions, and unions benefits that can be tapped, are better positioned to pay for a pricier funeral. Higher prices result in increased profits that enable White funeral homes to be much more flexible in the extension of credit and payment plans to their families. Some are even able to factor into their bottom-line a margin for extending charitable services to their “special case” families. In contrast, Black/Brown funeral homes understand the financial limits that far too many of the families they serve experience and lower their price point to be more affordable for working families. Generally, the only other options available to them are to work within the parameters of the meager benefits provided by Social Services that only cover the cost for direct cremations, or alternatively wait for families/friends to generate a “Go Fund Me” campaign to cover their loved one’s funeral expenses.

• 81.1% of Morticians, undertakers, & funeral directors are White (Non-Hispanic), making that the most common race or ethnicity in the occupation. Blacks (Non-Hispanic) represent 11.5% of Morticians, undertakers, & funeral directors, and are the second most common race or ethnicity in this occupation. *

In 1953, Ebony magazine reported there were 3,000 black-owned funeral parlors across the United States. Today, there are about 1,200. ** Approximately 89.2% of funeral homes in the United States are privately owned by families or individuals. The remaining 10.8% are owned by publicly-traded corporations (Service Corporation International (SCI) owns approximately 10.8% and Carriage Services Inc. and StoneMor Partners own approximately 1% each) *** The entire funeral industry is shifting with more and more families turning to cremation instead of burials due to the increasingly high cost of funerals. Well established, high volume White funeral homes are able to cash in on the sale of their establishments to these publicly-traded corporations affording them and their families a golden parachute for their retirement years. Black/Brown funeral home directors can no longer depend on the ready succession plan of turning the business over to the next generation of family members for the next generation have opted to become professionals in other fields or are simply not willing to take on the demands of a career as a mortician. Smaller, Black/Brown funeral homes are not likely to be sought after by the SCI’s of the industry. SCI does not keep any data on how many Black-owned funeral homes they have acquired, but it is almost certain that it will be limited to the few high-volume ones still in operation.

Raising these issues may very well make us feel uncomfortable and reluctant to consider the respective roles we play. That’s precisely how institutional racism operates and is able to be sustained. There is an unwillingness by all groups to counter the status quo. Should we not question why there are no Black/Brown vendors that manufacture and supply the equipment needed to operate a funeral home or even a directory that would enable us to support minority-owned businesses. Why is there limited data available on how many Black/Brown funeral homes have been bought out by publicly-traded corporations? How can Black/Brown funeral homes get easier access to low-interest loans to take on capital improvements in their facilities? How can low-income working families be provided with low-cost methods to finance burial funds possibly in much the same way as child care/dependent care tax deductions? How can all families, Black, Brown and White find comfort in choosing funeral homes based upon the quality and cost of the services being provided without regard to the race/ethnicity of the proprietor?

One might argue that Black/Brown funeral homes are an endangered species and like all endangered species, their future will depend on the survival of the fittest. This may very well be an undeniable truth, but let it be duly noted that it was not because they did not give their all to the communities they served!

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