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— 'Racism is alive and well in the funeral industry," says the Reverend George Walker Smith. "You can quote me on that."

Reverend Smith, pastor of Christ United Presbyterian Church of San Diego, is speaking out against corporate America's latest target: San Diego's three family-owned African-American funeral businesses. White-owned funeral-home corporations are on a buying spree, especially the Houston-based sci (Service Corporation International) and Vancouver's Loewen Group Inc. They're snapping up independent funeral homes and targeting the nation's estimated 4000 black-owned family funeral businesses.

"They've been calling me and writing me over the last two years," says Hartwell Ragsdale, 71, owner of San Diego's best-known black-owned funeral home, Anderson-Ragsdale. "They say, 'Wouldn't you like to retire? With the payment we'll offer you, you'll never have to work again.' I don't answer them."

"I've lived in San Diego 41 years," says Reverend Smith. "I remember the time when 90 percent of funeral homes didn't even accept black bodies! These mortuary companies that want our business today refused it when the law allowed them to."

Until the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act, San Diego's dead were legally segregated. At the two cemeteries that allowed black burials, Greenwood and Mt. Hope, blacks could only bury their dead in designated areas beside railroad tracks.

That kind of overt racism may be history, but the white funeral corporations' interest in black American business is relatively new. The reason is money. In an age when more white Americans are choosing cheap, quick cremation, African-Americans still favor full burial - caskets carried in a procession of limos to a cemetery plot. African-Americans average $3000 on a funeral, the chains have discovered, which means larger profits per body processed. The high mortality rate among young blacks also attracts corporate attention.

Segregation created the black funeral industry. Because no white parlors would handle African-American bodies, companies like Anderson-Ragsdale flourished. The funeral home at Federal and Euclid features marble floors, interior gardens, nine Cadillac hearses. Portraits from four generations of Ragsdales hang in the reception area.

"I go to a different church every week," says "Skipper" Ragsdale, 44, who will eventually take over the business from his father. "Just to mix, to be seen. Ninety-nine percent of our business is black folk. And there are over 50 black churches in San Diego. People know if they can't afford a funeral, we'll bury them anyway. When you're owned by a corporation in Houston, you can't make decisions like that. Your embalming skills aren't needed. They operate round-the-clock centralized embalming for all their funeral homes in a city, and a centralized garage for their limos. It's McDonald's. There are only five independent funeral homes left in San Diego; three of them are black-owned. We won't sell out."

"This is mainly a heart thing. The money comes second," adds the senior Ragsdale. "Sometimes we'll visit the surviving loved one several times after the funeral. Because we know the whole family's going to be buzzing around [the survivor] up to the funeral. It's the day after the funeral when the survivor suddenly finds herself or himself completely alone." Ragsdale senior understands how a consolidating industry squeezed by lower profits would covet the African-American market, where cremation is considered tacky and cheap caskets not much better.

According to the Reverend Smith, death carries a different message for African-Americans. "Death with a black person, no matter how poor you are, is a very, very important thing. And they will mortgage their house, or if they don't have a house, they will indebt themselves for life, go into whatever bankruptcy they can to bury their dead properly."

Smith says you can trace back to slavery this emphasis of death over birth, marriage, or any other rite of passage. "We had no hope when we were brought over here against our will. All that we had to look forward to was when we died. We hoped the life after death would be better. And as a result of that, death is very dear to us. Mourning is a part of our culture. You see more crying and carrying on for days after someone has died, no matter what you might have thought about the dead person. This is celebrating their release. It's a culture thing, and what I object to is the big mortuary industry merely capitalizes on us, people who take death more seriously than others."

Martin Mitchell, owner of one of the other two local African-American funeral homes doesn't completely agree. "Older black people like to keep their money in the black community. They feel more comfortable when it comes to applying the right make-up, how the casket is placed - higher than the average white open-casket display - and the ceremonies. But we cater to all. Only 55 to 60 percent of our business is black. We've had conversations with the majors, but I haven't considered selling. They're less personable. More assembly line. Profit motivates them. We like to maintain a close relationship with our clients. Owners I've talked to who've sold out, they have to cut costs, cut staff, but their prices go up! Of course, they have shareholders and directors to feed."

* * *

By phone from New York, Tom Franco, Loewen's spokesman, rattles off his company's numbers: started 1987; 1996 sales, $908 million; funeral homes acquired so far, 956; cemeteries acquired, 313; employees, 16,000. So far, says Franco, only 11 percent of the nation's independent funeral homes have been bought up by chains like his. "Eighty-nine percent are still out there. Hugely fragmented. Our growth potential is tremendous."

"G-R-E-E-D," snarls Reverend Smith. "That's how you spell it. One of the seven deadly sins. You know why they're coming to us? These [corporations] have got all that land out there. Cremation is killing that, and so they've got to [use] the land somehow. They know black folks want to be buried in the ground, 90 percent of them. So they come to us. They offer us money. They prey on weakness."

Loewen's big push came two years ago, when they shook hands with the National Baptist Convention, USA Inc., the 8.5-million member African-American church organization. Two congregation members from each of the convention's 33,000 churches would train with Loewen to become "funeral counselors." The objective: sell Loewen's "cemetery services" to fellow churchgoers at a 10 percent discount. The "counselors" would get 10 percent commission on sales, the church would receive 6 percent, black colleges and seminaries would share 5 percent, and the convention's Christian Education Fund would get a one-time contribution of $200,000.

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