Say this about the work: It is quiet. Walk into a funeral home like the Alexander S. Pope facility in Forestville, Md., out of a windy autumn afternoon, with the dead leaves chittering across the parking lot and the traffic barreling along Marlboro Pike, and immediately a calm envelops you that is part museum, part cathedral, so quiet you might as well be underwater.
People in the business often acquire a bifurcated style, capable of shifting in a second from gregariousness to solemnity, as illustrated by Alexander S. Pope III.
Leaving an office at his family’s establishment after half an hour of congenial chat, Pope steps into the foyer, which is as always tinged with a grandmotherly floral scent. Before escorting a visitor to the door, he glances over his right shoulder into the adjoining chamber, where a body lies in an open casket before rows of precisely arrayed folding chairs. Except for its lone horizontal occupant, the viewing room is empty; so, too, the entry area. Still, Pope’s voice drops noticeably in volume. His smile, while not vanishing, loses a few degrees of intensity.
As his name implies, Alex Pope at 25 is the third in a line of morticianly succession. He is the chief operating officer of a 74-year-old company with 40 employees, two full-service mortuaries whose chapels can hold 300 people at once, and its own cemetery. The Pope firm, which once operated a 20-car limousine fleet in addition to its undertaking business, still has 22 vehicles, although they handle only Pope passengers, living and deceased. Pope is neither the area’s largest funeral parlor operation nor its smallest, but in many ways, this family’s story sums up the history and significance of an institution that is at once a legacy of Jim Crow and a stout timber of black self-reliance: the African-American-owned funeral home.
Not that the role is without its critics. Across the decades, reformist debunkers like Jessica Mitford have heaped scorn on funeral directors at large for psycho-emotional predation and spurious business practices. However, African-American undertakers bear an additional burden. Among some black scholars, literati, and journalists, the funeral director is a target for disdain, if not ridicule.
Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier lumped undertakers among black professions and businesses owing their existence to white racism and providing their practitioners with a means of distancing themselves from the black masses. “These businesses have grown up to serve the needs of Negroes, principally because of the refusal on the part of white establishments to provide personal services for Negroes,” Frazier wrote in his 1957 book, Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class. He derided the “social myth” of Negro business as “one of the main elements in the world of “make-believe’ which the black bourgeoisie has created to compensate for its feeling of inferiority in a white world dominated by business enterprise.”
In Book of Numbers (1969), set in a fictional but realistic American South of the ’30s, novelist Robert Deane Pharr finds the apotheosis of middle-class mulatto pretension in the person of a college girl whose father owns a funeral home. When the girl flirts with aspiring gangster Dave Greene, he bristles. Pharr writes:
“[T]he daughter of a midwestern undertaker had grabbed him and insisted that he dance with her. She was tall and skinny with juicy lips. Aided by corn liquor, she had attained a degree of self-hypnosis.
“ “Hold me tighter, you dirty brute,’ she had gritted in Dave’s ear between bite-sized nibbles.”
Dave’s assessment: “Here’s a dizzy bitch only seventy years out of slavery and now she’s so bored and rich, she’s got to go slumming with a black-assed Little Caesar to get her kicks. A bored cotton-picking-society-darling. How do you like that batshit?”
And, about to quit Manhattan to become a Washington Post Magazine staff writer—a stint she chronicled in 1993’s Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience—the entertainingly self-aggrandizing Jill Nelson visits Harlem for a last fling with an undertaker beau, whom she characterizes as a lazy, conniving cokehead with a taste for Bacardi by the pint. Herself a daughter of the black bourgeoisie that discerns between people of color who visit the Vineyard and those, like her family, who own a place there, Nelson finds her man in the basement, trying to repair a corpse’s wilted hairdo. Vaseline from Nelson’s purse does the trick—“The man now looks like James Brown after he lost his conk in a cold sweat,” notes Nelson—and once the cosmetics are completed, they move the casket aside so they can copulate on a self-propelled embalming table that floats into the air as Nelson and companion approach climax. “I close my eyes and concentrate on getting off,” Nelson writes. “In that way I avoid vertigo, the Mortician’snasty expression, and the leering glance of the dead man with the Jheri Kurl as we move up and down.”
To be dissed in print is annoying, but to have people shooting up your shop is worse. Amid the current blood tide engulfing the city, funeral home staffs at times work behind police protection. The gangsta ethic and its rococo nuances—slipping a live round into a dead homeboy’s jacket pocket, for example—collide uncomfortably with the funeral home ethos of dignity and quiet, never mind the high temperature of the crematorium.
Black funeral directors also are under siege on the business side. Conglomeration and diversification are the hallmarks of a growing trend toward national funeral service chains like Stewart Enterprises, the Loewen Group, and Service Corp. International. Though they own fewer than 10 percent of the nation’s funeral homes, these firms handle nearly 15 percent of American funerals, prompting a Chicago Corp. stock analyst to issue a “buy” recommendation on all three.
In few respects do blacks and whites differ more dramatically than in the styles with which they honor their dead. For example, about 35 percent of whites choose cremation, compared with less than 1 percent of blacks. Whites spend more—the average white funeral costs $4,500, compared with $2,500 for the average black funeral—but are moving away from the traditional wake/viewing/funeral arrangements.
Consanguinity and ethnic solidarity have long been strong factors in the choice of funeral care—my last relatives in Boston were planted out of a Dolan Funeral Home branch overlooking Route 3—but in a straitened economy and a busy world it may no longer be so important that the man or woman handling the arrangements look and talk and think as we do. Who owns the funeral home may be less critical than what the funeral costs. Now that equal rights legislation has erased the color line that once provided black-owned businesses of all sorts with captive markets, the African-American funeral home faces aggressive competition that couches its sales pitch not in black or white but green.
Any figure that can trigger discussions of money and meaning is powerful. The black funeral director is a powerful figure, and the black-owned funeral home is a powerful place, where core elements of African-American culture express themselves in pure terms. Blacks mourn in a manner that connects directly to the central black American experience: slavery. Across the U.S., the funerals of African-Americans, with slight regional variation, tap the same theme; they bid farewell to someone who is going home, someone departing a strange land, someone ending a life as a stranger in that land.
This doubtless helps explain why, despite the incursions of the chain mortuaries and the attraction to some of nonblack independent funeral homes, most African-Americans are buried by African-Americans. And why, in the last 90 years, the mortician’s license and the funeral parlor deed have become prominent rungs on the ladder to black economic power and all that it implies: property ownership, community respect, political clout.
Of course, when most Africans first came to America, they didn’t own anything. They were owned. What scant succor existed for them in the New World lay in the belief systems of the world from which they had been torn. Most eventually became Christians, but many incorporated by reference and ritual vestiges of forcibly abandoned African religions—especially those vestiges concerning death and burial.
The protocols of such West African tribes as the Ovimbundu, the Mende, the Temne, and the BaKongo, from which much of the slave population was harvested, urge reverence for the dead and adherence to proper burial practices. Dead ancestors are a key class of spirits, guardians of customs whose continuance depends on the living, writes Albert J. Raboteau in 1978’s Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution of the Antebellum South.
“Because of the powerful position of the ancestors, burial rites become very important. Improper or incomplete funeral rites can interfere with or delay the entrance of the deceased into the spiritual world and may cause his soul to linger about, as a restless and malevolent ghost,” writes Raboteau. “Funeral ceremonies are long, complex, and expensive, but it would be a great disgrace for a family not to observe the proper rites, even if they must go into debt to do so. Before a funeral is complete, several customs must be observed: preparation of the body for burial, the wake, interment.” Family and friends decorate grave sites with the resident’s personal effects. After the burial, a mourning meal takes place, and various periods of grieving are prescribed.
Variations on such customs dot the map like stains of the peculiar institution. In some parts of Jamaica, on the ninth night after death, the deceased’s spirit, or “duppy,” is believed to return during a ceremony whose leader channels messages from the departed. In the Sea Islands off Georgia, funeralgoers of the early 1900s were still participating in “ring shouts” (possibly from saut, the West African Muslim term for religious dancing). To a rhythmic call-and-response chant, mourners would circle the coffin counterclockwise, barely lifting their feet as they moved jerkily forward. Sometimes drums, outlawed to keep slaves from communicating in the African style, were permitted in funerals. Raboteau quotes an elderly Georgian, Rachel Anderson: “Use tuh alluz beat duh drums at fewnuls. Right attuh duh pusson die, dey beat um to tell duh uddahs bout duh fewnul….On duh way tuh duh grabe dey beat duh drum as dey ismahchin long. Wen duh body is put in duh grabe, ebrybody shout roun duh grabe in a succle, singin and prayin.”
The key influence on slave funeral tradition was slavery itself. Colonial and later state laws barred blacks from congregating, preventing captive Africans from assembling to honor their dead. When slave funerals were permitted, they took place at night, to avoid disrupting the work schedule. If a daylight burial was necessary, children often dug the graves, usually shallow affairs on barren land.
Raboteau describes the “funeral” of a slave named Samuel Andrews, who was hauled in an ox-cart to a hole, dumped, and covered; his wife and children were not allowed to stop work to attend his unceremonious exit. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews With Virginia Ex-Slaves includes a firsthand recollection of one plantation’s burial methods: “Now on our place when a slave die, ‘ole overseer would go to de saw mill an’ git a twelve inch board, shape it wid a point head an’ foot, an’ dig a grave to fit it. Den he tie de body to de board an’ bring it in de hole to keep it from stinkin’. Slaves most de times dress de body in all his clothes, ’cause wouldn’t no one ever wear ’em. Whoever wear a dead man’s clothes gonna die hisself, dey used to say.”
When slaves grew too old to work, a Weevils witness notes, “their masters would sell um to keep from buryin’ um. It cost ten dollars to bury um. Either that to pay out or they make de coffin in de carpenter’s shop on de plantation, an’ de master don’t wanna lost de time from other work.”
Landowners encouraged missionaries to preach to their slaves. “They wanted to put the fear of God in them, give them a notion of hell, scare them into obedience,” said Baltimore funeral home director Erich March, who lectured on African-American burial practices at a recent Nashville, Tenn., meeting of the National Funeral Directors Association. But among the converts, Christianity annealed in unexpected ways. Hearing how the Jews were enslaved and how Moses led them to freedom, the Africans embraced not a God angry at acts of disobedience, but a God who would break their earthly bonds. In the antebellum era, according to March, “Moses” was the most popular name for male children.
“Here they were: in squalor, men and women separated except when they were forced to procreate for breeding, their children snatched away, no family structure,” March said. “They lived in the shadow of the plantation’s fine house, and they heard Jesus in the New Testament say, “In my Father’s house are many mansions.’ ”
For slaves, the Father’s house offered not only surcease, but salvation. Death arrived not as the end of life, but as a sweet chariot coming for to carry them home.
“Their philosophy became one of weeping when you come in and rejoicing when you go out. A funeral became an act of celebration,” March said. “One white missionary wrote, “Slaves take solace in religion and worship with such intensity that it is almost too terrible to witness.’ The essence of the black funeral is still a homegoing. We were never fully franchised in this country and that feeling is more relevant today. Black people still have a sense of this not being their home. When we print programs for funerals, we offer families a variety of phrases for the cover, and the one chosen most often is “Homegoing Service.’ ”
Death could alter the master/slave equation, if only briefly. Some slaves literally fought efforts to thwart burial tradition, and some masters respected Africans’ wishes to conduct funerals on their own terms, according to Elaine Nichols of the South Carolina State Museum.
“I have read historical accounts of slaves being openly rebellious about how and where their dead would be buried,” said Nichols, who curated the state museum’s exhibit “The Last Mile of the Way: African-American Homegoing Traditions 1890-Present.” “This was one area that was so sacred and so important that slaveowners tended to bend the rules or ignore the law requiring that whites be present at every gathering of slaves.”
At graveside, the transplanted Africans sometimes passed babies and young children over dead relatives’ coffins, especially those of parents and grandparents—a ritual still performed occasionally in South Carolina. “The purposes for passing a child over a coffin remain unchanged from what they were during slavery—to keep the child from “frettin,’ or being afraid of the dead and to keep the spirit from claiming the life of the child,” wrote Nichols in the “Last Mile” catalog.
The Pope funeral home dynasty was established in 1920 by Alexander S. Pope, who arrived in Washington bearing a fresh diploma in embalming and sanitary science from Echels College in Philadelphia.
Pope was a seasoned funeral parlor hand before enrolling at Echels in 1919 at age 17. The sixth of eight children born to James, a mason, and Julia Pope in Columbia, S.C., Alexander took to heart his father’s encouragement to get an education and a trade. At age 12, he went to work at Manigault’s funeral home in Columbia, acquiring by apprenticeship many of the skills Echels would later certify. Working part-time, Alex finished high school and studied business at Allen University, studied barbering, then left for Philadelphia and the one-year course at Echels.
He came to D.C. to join his siblings and mother, who had moved to Wallach Place NW. James Pope had died in the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, his son James, also a mason, had come to the capital to find work and locate a new home for the family. Another brother, Hassie, ran the Royal Barbershop, a 12-chair affair at 18th and U Streets NW.
Alex Pope was a man with a plan. He would barber as much as necessary to fund a funeral home, then he would become a funeral director. He could not have chosen a more apt avenue on which to chase his dream. In pre-electronic America, the barbershop was like a newsgroup on the Internet: a source of inside information, an outlet for views, a center of schmooze. Customers lolled in their temporary hydraulic thrones, momentary minor lords inclined to dispense not only opinions but largesse. Across the South, barbershops like the Royal were regular stops for poor blacks passing the hat to pay for a funeral, as well as enterprise zones where white businessmen and black barbers warily encountered one another as potential partners, if not peers.
After emancipation, white undertakers did not necessarily reject African-American business. In fin de siècle South Carolina, corpses often crossed the color line. “In at least one case where there was only one [white] funeral home in the city, that business serviced the entire community,” Elaine Nichols said in a telephone interview.“Eventually the white funeral director began sending his black customers to an African-American, thus helping to establish the first funeral home for African-Americans in that area.”
In areas lacking funeral directors, the home-organized funeral persisted. “In the South and in rural areas, African-Americans continued certain practices for a long time after white funeral practices had changed,” Nichols said. “They would not embalm the body, but would bury it immediately, and not hold the funeral until later, perhaps months later. It might not have been financially feasible for family members to come across the country to the burial, but they would come to the funeral service. In South Carolina, African-Americans did not routinely embalm bodies until after the 1940s.”
The first generation of black-owned funeral parlors arrived amid the African-American self-help movement fostered by leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Since white undertakers’ acceptance of black business tended to end once enough Caucasian customers materialized, blacks needed their own practitioners, who in turn needed an economic incentive to hang out a shingle. In fraternal organizations and mutual benefit societies akin to those of other ethnic groups, such as the Italocentric Knights of Columbus, a Catholic workingman’s organization, blacks created a mechanism that stimulated fellowship and helped cover burial costs.
Along with the ruffles of uniform and the flourishes of ceremony, African-American outfits like the Grand United Order of the True Reformers and the Royal Knights of King David provided funds to bury lodge brothers and family members. Out of the fraternal groups’ neo-actuarial activities came genuine underwriting companies like North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co.
Founded in 1898 in Durham, N.C., by John Merrick and Aaron M. Moore, North Carolina Mutual numbered among its charter goals “the relief of widows and orphans, of the sick and of those injured by accidents, and the burial of the dead.”
Merrick was born in 1859, the slave son of a black woman and a white man. He grew up in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he worked as a hod carrier, mason, and bootblack before becoming a barber. He and a partner opened a shop in Raleigh, where his skill drew many customers, black and white. His regulars included members of the Duke family, which ran American Tobacco, and cotton mill operator Julian Shakespeare Carr.
In 1880, Carr, who came to Merrick for haircuts because his hometown lacked a barber to suit him, persuaded Merrick and partner to bring their shears to Durham, where Merrick eventually would own nine shops. One day, American Tobacco founder Washington Duke was in the chair, with Merrick scissoring. A group of impoverished blacks entered the store to seek burying money for a dead friend; afterward, Duke remarked that blacks should organize an insurance company that would pay sickness and death benefits.
In the observation, Merrick heard the crack le of opportunity. By now a community pillar, he contacted another: Moore, Durham’s first black physician. The two, along with Charles Clinton Spaulding—a blacksmith’s son, who had been a dishwasher, bellboy, waiter, and office assistant for a white attorney before becoming manager of a cooperative black grocery store in Durham—became the spine of the insurance company.
Soon after its creation, North Carolina Mutual faltered and had to be reorganized. Merrick and Moore hired Spaulding as a salesman. He was exactly the spark plug their engine needed—a man who “was bold, almost rash, and could hawk insurance without the slightest diffidence on street corners, in Jim Crow [segregated railroad] cars, or wherever he found a listener,” wrote Walter B. Weare in Black Business in the New South. “When the Company paid its first death benefits under his management, he “hit the streets’ waving the receipts and buttonholing black folks with his evidence that North Carolina Mutual “paid off,’ and that only a foolish Negro could not afford a policy.”
Premiums ranged from a nickel a week, which bought $1.60 in sick benefits and $20 in funeral coverage, to 50 cents a week ($10 sick, $120 death). The nickels and quarters began to accumulate: By 1904, the firm had 40,000 policyholders; by 1906, 80,000. The partners used their success to start other concerns: the weekly Durham Negro Observer, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, and Durham Textile Mill, as well as a hospital, library, and college.
Other black-owned insurers entered the market in North Carolina and around the country: Atlanta was home to Atlanta Life (founded by another ex-slave and master barber, Alonzo Herndon) and Standard Life; D.C. had National Benefit Life. The stream of insurance payments encouraged blacks to buy more funeral services, and African-Americans to open funeral homes wherever a significant black community existed.
Washington had long had a substantial black population. In 1910, on the eve of a migratory decade that would take as many as 1,000,000 African-Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, Washington was home to more blacks than any U.S. city. Black-owned funeral parlors like Frazier’s on Rhode Island Avenue NW, and John T. Rhine’s in Southwest already had opened for business, with additional competition in the wings from Stewart’s, McGuire’s (see sidebar on page 22), and other establishments whose names remain familiar today.
Along with ending slavery in North America, the Civil War began the modern age of what is sometimes called “death care.” The conflict’s massive improvements in killing technology helped revive the practice of embalming, in which a corpse is soaked in substances that inhibit decay.
Organic and chemical variations on the embalming techniques pioneered by the Egyptians had existed for thousands of years. Simple folk—black and white—went into the ground quickly or, as became the practice among British subjects in North America, into an alum-, pitch-, or wax-soaked sheet intended to fend off the effects of warm weather. Later, dead Americans went on ice, according to The History of American Funeral Directing, by Robert W. Habenstein and William M. Lamers. An official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), American Funeral Directing is a font of facts on the business, which wraps itself in the shroud of ancient history but is scarcely 125 years old. (NFDA was founded in 1880, and for decades outright barred or indirectly discouraged black members; in response, the Negro Business League formed a branch that became the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association. In recent times, NFDA has been more friendly to blacks, but the minority business group continues its historical role as the African-American undertaker’s voice.)
Prior to the Civil War, body preparation and burial were largely family affairs. Coffins were handmade by family or friends, who also prepared the body for burial. The first afterlife entrepreneurs were those who provided mourners’ clothing and funeral decorations for houses where the departed were laid out. With the onset of urbanization and industrialization, every home no longer had a woodshop, so survivors with cash in hand contracted that task to cabinetmakers like Joseph F. Birch in early-19th-century Georgetown. Initially, because a back stock of burial boxes was deemed bad luck, Birch would only assemble coffins on order—country folk would bring a stick whittled to the departed’s dimensions—but business was so good that in 1841 he traded carpentry for undertaking.
As doctors began to link poor sanitation and disease, interest in embalming rose again. Convinced the process would reduce or eliminate the incidence of killer illnesses like scarlet fever and diphtheria, scientists tinkered with formulations to be injected into bodies to prevent rot. The earliest were poisonous stews whose ingredients included arsenic, mercury, and zinc. However, in 1850, Manhattan physician Thomas Holmes devised a nontoxic fluid that could be injected into a body with effective and pleasing result.
On the eve of the Civil War, Holmes patented an injection pump for delivering his juice. He moved to D.C., pamphletting the troops who crowded the city with fliers promising to embalm them at no charge. At undertaking establishments like those of Birch, Anthony Buckley in Washington, and Benjamin Wheatley in Alexandria, Holmes displayed embalmed corpses. His promotions irritated authorities, who arrested him on charges of creating a public nuisance.
Holmes erased such blots with his first famous customer, the late Col. Elmer E. Ellsworth. A staunch Lincoln man, Ellsworth had helped guard the president-elect during his trip to Washington for his inauguration. While patrolling Alexandria on the morning of May 24, 1861, Ellsworth tangled with secessionists and was shot dead, the North’s first ranking casualty.
One man’s funeral is another man’s feast. A distraught Lincoln offered to lay out his friend at the White House. Alert for the main chance, Holmes hooked the embalming assignment; he treated the body at the Navy Yard. When the late colonel went on display in the East Room, his appearance drew rave reviews. One onlooker said later that Ellsworth’s face appeared “natural, as though he were sleeping a brief and pleasant sleep.”
Press coverage made Holmes’ reputation (once the war was over, he claimed to have personally embalmed 4,028 soldiers and officers). Other embalmers swarmed the charnel fields; the streets of D.C. and routes to the fighting were plastered with placards and billboards touting mortuary services.
Prince Greer, the country’s first black embalmer, was trained by W.R. Cornelius, a Pennsylvanian from the cabinetmaker ranks, who operated out of Nashville during the war. A man of surpassing commercial vision, Cornelius contracted with the Confederate forces to bury their dead and the Union forces to preserve theirs. He had a blunt way with a word. “After the fight at Stones River, I shipped colonels, majors, captains, and privates by the carload some days,” Cornelius wrote in a memoir. “I had no trouble with embalming by the Holmes process, using the femoral artery. The only trouble was that the subject would become discolored, but would keep any length of time.”
Hired to replace an assistant who had quit, Greer “appeared to enjoy embalming so much that he became himself an expert, kept on at work embalming during the balance of the war, and was very successful,” according to Cornelius. “It was but a short time before he could raise an artery as quickly as anyone, and was always careful, always of course coming to me in a critical case.”
After the war, home-based funerals remained the norm, although availability of embalming led more people to hire undertakers to prepare bodies and provide coffins (the euphemistic “casket” was a Reconstruction invention), clothing for mourners, and funeral drapes and coverings for the house.
Holmes’ infusion embalming was a long time gaining widespread acceptance; even as late as World War I, it had not been adopted in every precinct. Many morticians put bodies on ice and preserved them with salt to keep them from decomposing before burial. In the cities, undertakers made house calls, preparing bodies for viewing in situ, then delivering them to the cemetery. In the rural South, still home to most black Americans, friends or family washed and dressed the body, laid coins on the eyes to keep them closed, made the coffin, dug the grave, and carried the body to the cemetery in the household wagon or one borrowed from a friend or neighbor. Those of greater means would contract for a coffin, pay a gravedigger, and hire a more formal livery for the procession.
The habits of black Southern grieving that had developed in slavery days evolved into the “settin’ up.” Instead of today’s evening wake, a Northern phenomenon rooted in the urban work schedule of many mourners, the rural settin’ up brought friends and family to the deceased’s home as soon as they heard the news. Singing, praying, and recalling memories to ease the pain, they remained until the next morning. As blacks moved North and the time clock caught up with Southern cities, the evening wake caught on, though suffused with the settin’ up spirit. A South Carolinian quoted in the “Last Mile” catalog described the ’20s-vintage home wake, conducted with the body present for viewing:
Callers did not try to make the bereaved family cheer up. They talked about faith in God, and quietly pressed “a piece of money” into the hand of the head of the house. There was something about the embers in the fireplace, the rocking chair, the solitude of friends that was comforting indeed. The small gathering, usually of women, seemed to be warding off the death of the next victim. Some of the men would have a drink on the back porch. In the days that followed, neighbors and church members would continue to visit, to reminisce, rocking on front porches even after the acute stages of mourning.
A black-owned funeral parlor like Locks in Baltimore, in business since 1830, was a rarity, but white funeral parlors were opening in profusion; an 1882 D.C. directory lists 50. Even so, practitioners were at best peripheral figures, though not for long. In 1880, according to American Funeral Directing, the undertaker “was a merchant, selling goods to customers, but at the same time he was becoming more and more involved in taking charge of the management aspects of the care and disposal of the dead.”
As the century turned, the funeral director’s role began to expand toward what it is today: one-stop shopping, with preparation, storage, and viewing facilities, as well as all the pertinent equipment and services, under a single roof.
The Pope operation was the epitome of the classic funeral home start-up, white or black: a one-man show that developed into a family-managed operation as the owner added a spouse and offspring.
Alexander Pope spent his first months in D.C. cutting heads, first at the Royal and later at Fitzhugh’s, a black-run, whites-only barbershop at 14th and New York Avenue NW, where a regular Pope customer was builder Thomas W. Clarke. Pope and Clarke found a thread of commerce to bridge the social gap separating them. In 1920, a deal coalesced: Clarke’s firm would build three storefronts for Pope at 15th and Florida Avenue NE. The builder would hold the note, Pope would find tenants for two of the spaces, and in the third he would install his fledgling business. As it expanded, he would take back the leased space for his own use.
The buildings went up, the funeral home went in—and the city decided to widen Bladensburg Road NE, condemning the property by eminent domain. Pope found another building site, this time in Anacostia, and rearranged his arrangement with Clarke, adding to the mix a house built to his specifications at 613 18th St. NE.
Pope’s Funeral Home occupied 315 15th St. SE. One adjoining building was rented to a five-and-dime and later to Beasley’s Drugstore; the other, to an outlet of Sanitary Stores, which later became the Safeway grocery chain.
A convert from Methodism to Catholicism, Pope joined St. Cyprian’s parish at 13th and C Streets SE. (No matter what the denomination or persuasion, a church affiliation was essential to any funeral director. In their roles as counselors of the sick and grief-torn, members of the clergy are positioned to make recommendations. At the very least, church offers a social setting in which to get one’s name around.)
Pope soon found customers in his parish and elsewhere. The “practical embalming” system taught at Echels was a basic version of that employed today, but it was an advance over the ice-and-salt treatment then popular among D.C. morticians. He and others of his generation brought Washington embalming into the future.
Like attracts like. Journalists are pals with journalists, teachers know teachers. Policemen chum it up with policemen. And funeral directors associate with funeral directors. Hardly had Pope spent $500 to buy a Packard hearse and the other tools of his trade than he met Mary Reynolds through her sister, Ruth, who worked at Rhines Funeral Home in Southwest. They fell in love and were married at Providence Baptist Church at 4th and M Streets SW.
The Reynoldses were old D.C. Mary’s mother was a Greene; her father, a native of Caroline County, Va., may have been a black-side member of a plantation family from that area. “I would have to say my grandfather was white, which was how he looked to me,” Alexander Pope Jr. said. “My mother worked in the business alongside my father. She did the hairdressing and cosmetics and was the bookkeeper. Later, she attended the National Foundation of Funeral Service in Evanston, Illinois. I wish you could have met her; she had a mind like a computer. She died in 1981.”
Alexander S. Pope Jr. was born March 31, 1925, and literally grew up in the funeral business. He remembers a scene from his childhood in which his future was foretold. “My father used a church truck to move caskets into and out of the church. It was the wheeled arrangement that you see everywhere these days, but in those days it was something new,” he said. “Once I was pushing that church truck along and a man said, “Hey, boy, leave that thing alone!’ My father looked at him and said, “No, that is what I want him to be doing.’ ”
Young Alex was baptized at St. Cyprian’s and attended grade school at Charles Young Elementary in Langston, then Browne Junior High and Dunbar High School, where he was a 16-year-old member of the class of 1942.
As the only child of an undertaker, Alex Jr. inhabited a universe of certain fixities. “You had to dress well,” he said. “You couldn’t make enemies. You had to behave, because, like a clergyman’s son, you stood out. They expected you to behave.”
The business grew through the ’20s and ’30s as Alexander Pope Sr. pushed into new markets. In southern Maryland, where black sharecroppers were paid by tobacco warehouses in scrip, he accepted scrip in payment. For work he dressed in a morning suit: pin-stripe trousers, gray waistcoat and spats, a white carnation in his lapel.
“My father’s line of work never struck me as unnatural,” said Alexander Pope Jr. “He was held in high esteem by the community. He dressed up for work every day, where other men only dressed up on Sunday. He bought his clothes on 7th Street NW and his homburg hats from Brock’s Haberdashery on 11th Street. He was 6 feet 2 inches, and he smiled all the time. People called him Alex, and he had no leisure-time activities. He was about business.”
The undertaker’s son acquired a sense of community responsibility. “When I was a child, one of my friends was struck by a Baltimore and Annapolis train when he was crossing the tracks at 24th and Benning Road NE,” Pope said. “My friend was killed and my father buried that child. I was attending Charles Young Elementary, and the whole school attended that funeral. My mother was a member of the Kingman Park Civic Association, which appealed to the District commissioners to build an underpass there so the kids would not have to cross the tracks.”
Young Alex joined the business at about the age his father had gone to Manigault’s back in Columbia. After school he would man the all-important telephone so his father could come home for supper. The boy had his own entrepreneurial streak; in junior high school, he built an Evening Star delivery route into a miniature empire, hiring other youths to carry papers on a fleet of 16 bicycles bought at Western Auto. “I like fleets,” he said. “I tell everybody, I’ve got two of everything except wives.”
He was a Boy Scout; during the 1938 jamboree that brought thousands of Scouts to D.C., he served as a guide at the White House, where he shook hands with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He would have made Eagle except that when the war broke out he shifted his energies to being an air raid warden in Anacostia, overseeing the bicycle-messenger brigade.
By the time World War II began, Pope’s was well established among the city’s funeral parlors, and the Popes were well established in the city’s black middle class. “The color line never entered my picture,” said Alexander Pope Jr. “There were whites in my neighborhood—a lot of Italians—and we got along together all right. We played together. They went to their school and I went to mine. But when it came to entertainment, they wanted to see Fats Waller, but I could see him. I never had any jealousy. We had everything—we would go swimming at Carr’s Beach and at the YWCA on 12th Street. We had St. Cyprian’s Parish Hall, which was one of the most active places going; they had something happening there every night. The field where the stadium is now was my ballpark.”
He always intended to go into the funeral business, felt he had to be a leader, had to be first in everything. Upon graduating from Dunbar, he enrolled at Howard University in engineering and architecture, aiming to be able to design and build a funeral home. But the Selective Service requested the pleasure of his company. He spent the duration in Tampa, Fla., as an Army Air Corps sergeant. Mustering out in February 1946, he returned to Howard, where a dispute over credits ended that portion of his academic career. He left D.C. for Philadelphia and his father’s mortuary alma mater, returning a year later, sheepskin in hand, to endure a two-year apprenticeship with that sternest of journeymen, his progenitor.
“My father did not believe in you just becoming a funeral director,” Pope said. “He was among the people who succeeded in getting a law passed by Congress to set professional standards for funeral directors in D.C. He testified at the same hearings as W.W. Chambers, but he emphasized the need for professionalism in the industry.”
Those congressional hearings were immortalized by an exchange in which Chambers, a white Washington undertaker and millionaire who could have showed Thomas Holmes a thing or two, said undertaking was “the most highly specialized racket in the world.” Chambers, who advertised his prices item by item, said the industry did not want open pricing because it would mean an end to fabulous profits.
Chambers claimed he could teach a good plumber how to embalm in 60 days. He put the cost of embalming a human body at 40 cents and an elephant at $1.50. A rarity among white practitioners, Chambers accepted black clients, but was hardly an avatar of equality; Alexander Pope Jr. says he once heard Chambers say he’d be happy to bury blacks—all at once. (The Chambers firm remains active—its mansarded mansion off U.S. Route 1 in Hyattsville still sports the company’s logo in Vegas-scale blue and red neon.)
In 1947, D.C. condemned the funeral parlor and the rest of the block to build a playground for Payne Elementary School. The Popes moved across the street and over a block, into an old mansion with an adjoining lot. The plan was to build a chapel on that lot and connect it to the house, but zoning problems stalled the idea.
Meanwhile, in the body preparation room, Chambers’ glib training time-line seemed remote to an apprentice struggling to meet his master’s standards for competent embalming. “My father insisted on you studying the cause of death and mixing the proper ratio of fluids, which varies with the cause of death,” said Alexander Pope Jr. “You also have to calculate the injection and drainage necessary for full distribution and color to bring the remains back to a natural look rather than mummifying them. These require diagnostic skills. You also had to learn feature building—proper eye and mouth closure. For example, if a person had been sick, you had to build up the temple and jaw structure where it had gone hollow-looking. My father was strict on that.”
When Alex Jr. finished his apprenticeship in 1949, Pope’s was doing about 75 funerals a year. By industry tradition, promotional technique consisted mainly of calendars and straw and cardboard fans distributed among the region’s churches. (Any Washingtonian of a certain age can remember sitting in the Sunday steam of an August morning as a whisking susurrus accompanied the sermon. Today’s fans are made of cardboard stapled to sticks, and do not make the same sound; at antique stores and black memorabilia shows, the old fans bring $10 or $15 apiece.)
Business improved when President Harry Truman barred bias in federal hiring. “When I first came along, blacks could go into the government as messengers and clerk-typists at the Census Bureau and the Veterans Administration, maybe a few laborers at the Government Printing Office,” Pope said. “When Truman signed his anti-discrimination order, blacks began to get better jobs, to move up in government. As they did, they made more money and got better insurance, so they began to purchase better funerals and funeral merchandise.”
Young Pope had put aside the things of childhood, but he had not forgotten that bicycle fleet. Besides a Packard hearse, the firm had a brace of Cadillac limousines. When extra cars were needed, funeral home operators used an informal but well-organized barter system. “There was what they called a “we/they’ book,” Pope explained. “My father had most of his services in the morning, so in the evening he would send his cars to the other homes, and get credit in the book. They would do likewise, and everyone had access to twice as many cars as they actually owned.”
Alex Jr. saw possibilities in livery. He paid $4,200 for a used LaSalle limousine, proposing to rent it for $12 a day. “My father said, “No way. The Pope Funeral Home will not charge other homes for the use of our cars,’ ” Pope said. “But I was determined, and I named my business Mortuary Services Associates. At the end of the first month I got my checks from the other homes, and my father was shocked at how much money there was.”
Mortuary Services Associates received the founding father’s imprimatur, and the livery unit was off and running. “I would go to Union Station and meet the Congressional from New York City, which came in at 5:30 p.m.,” Pope said. “I’d pick up such as Mrs. Marjorie Merriwether Post and Mrs. Riggs of the banking family. They became regular customers and referred me to others. As the business expanded, I hired drivers.
“My theory was to use the funeral cars for other than funeral work when they were not in use for that. I was also working in the funeral home along with driving and managing the livery services,” Pope said. He also found time to land a job as a scientific illustrator for the Navy and Commerce Departments. There were not enough hours in the day for him to work.
“I am an opportunist,” he said. “My dad used to say, “Always keep your pants on. When opportunity knocks you want to be able to go to the door, because he may go away.’ One thing leads to another, and you do not know where it will come from.”
He slowed his pace slightly in 1956, when a heart attack killed his father. Facing lonely nights manning the phone without a son to relieve him, he wanted a hobby to fill the time between calls, and he remembered how much his dad had enjoyed the Lionel train set they had bought one Christmas. Soon the big basement at 1701 C St. SE had became a simulacrum in tiny scale of the Pennsylvania Railroad. “I ran it across all the shelves in the basement,” Pope said. “Where somebody else might have put up a bar, I put a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood. I built everything on the system. It was a lot of fun; it added years to my life.”
The tangle around the proposed expansion worsened. If the funds designated by his father’s estate for that purpose weren’t used, the tax man would gobble them. Alex Jr. had a solution; he bought more limousines. “That was my first six-pack purchase, from a broker in Detroit. They were Series 75 Cadillacs,” he said.
Though the Series 75 was a popular Caddy, General Motors discontinued the line, prompting aficionados to search for used models. One day in 1957, the livery service phone rang. Pope picked it up.
“Mortuary Services Associates,” he said.
“I don’t want a funeral home,” the caller said. “I want the person who bought the last Series 75 Cadillac out of Detroit. My client is looking for a limousine. Do you want to sell yours?”
“No,” said Pope.
“Do you want to rent it?”
“If I do business with you, I can’t be using a mortuary business telephone line,” the voice said.
Alexander Pope Jr. had his pants on. Mortuary Services Associates became Limousine Services Associates, and began providing a car and driver to the mystery client: Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Then living in Georgetown, the increasingly visible JFK was a fine addition to any livery service’s customer list. Members of his circle soon were using Pope cars, and the company’s reputation rose.
“Anything big that happened in D.C., I had a part of,” said Pope. “We contracted to all the funeral homes. I had a part of the 1961 Kennedy inaugural; for Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural in ’65, I furnished the drivers. I had 3-by-5 cards on 150 drivers I could call on.”
He carried Frank Sinatra, press panjandrums like New York Times bureau chief James Reston, maybe even Howard Hughes—although when Hughes Tool booked its usual three cars at a clip, you never knew who was in which, and Pope drivers were not encouraged to be inquisitive.
“My drivers were told what they saw they didn’t see and what they heard they didn’t hear,” Pope said. “They would come in from a run and my mother would be there, eager to hear what the women had worn and so forth. My drivers would say, “I’ve been told not to tell this stuff to my own wife.’ We had the banks, the International Monetary Fund people. As the African nations would become independent and establish embassies here, they would hire our cars until they got their own. Michael Jackson was a client when he was just a little boy.”
In 1964, a year shy of turning 40 and still living with his mother at 1701 C St. SE, Alex married Sandra Quillen, an accountant from Tennessee who is now the company’s financial manager. “Everybody teased me about it, saying she was the only one who could understand me and the business,” he said. Daughter Julia was born in 1965, Alexander S. III in 1967, Lydia Mary in 1969, and John Stephen in 1971.
The livery business had been running even with undertaking, but fell off as the ’60s disintegrated into violence. Pope defended a company garage in Adams Morgan against a mob that wanted to burn it in the riots following the assassination of his former livery client, Martin Luther King Jr. “I put King’s picture all over, but people still wanted to burn it down. They did not believe I owned the place. Nothing happened, although the riots were the beginning of the end of the livery business.”
Post-riot D.C. nightlife was an oxymoron. The S.H. Hines Funeral Home on 14th Street, a prime Pope livery client, split for the suburbs in a merger with Rinaldi’s. Joseph Gawler & Sons, another big livery customer, was bought by Service Corp. International, which had its own cars. The limousine service clung to life, but the handwriting was on the windshield. In 1975, when the city condemned the Pope garage at 131 Q St. NW to build the Bates Street Project, it was quitting time.
But the funeral home was booming. In 1971, the A&P supermarket at 2617 Pennsylvania Ave. SE went out of business. American Security Bank approached Pope as a prospective occupant.
“It was much larger than the 15th Street Building, like jumping to 10 from 1. Because I had been doing my livery service business, which was all cash, with National Bank of Washington, the people there loved me. They lent me $250,000 to renovate 2617,” he said. “I designed it as a functional building all on one floor with no steps and a chapel that opened onto two reposing rooms, with accordion doors that could turn it all into one large room. We got it done quickly—everybody on the approving board was a client of mine, like Elliott Janeway, who was LBJ’s economic adviser. We repaid the bank in less than six years.”
Letting the livery service wither—would-be customers pestered him to rent them cars even after he had the fleet painted gold to discourage business—Pope reimmersed himself in the funeral business, which had reached several hundred clients yearly. He was still living on the two-way radio, though, constantly in touch with his remaining drivers and his family, whom he contacted via the handle “LS-1,” after the livery company name. In fact, he had finally gotten too busy.
“My mother took me aside and said, “You have got to come in and take care of these children.’ She said that she was satisfied that I was a good son and that I had developed the business to its potential, and now it was time to look to my family,” he said. “My kids were not calling me “Dad,’ they were calling me “LS-1.’ In ordinary conversation, they were not saying “yes’ or “no,’ they were saying “positive’ or “negative.’ And when they ended a conversation in person, they would say, “Over and out.’ ”
The funeral home was a model of efficiency in design and equipage; in 1978, Pope computerized. He saw how he could have his family and his business, too—he bought a big house in Temple Hills, Md., that had a 3,000-square-foot basement to house the Popenna Railroad, as he calls his breathtakingly detailed HO-gauge layout. The house also had enough room for an office where he could work and see his children grow up. And as he watched Prince Georges County fill with people of color, he saw where to take his next step.
“We began looking all over the county. One reason we chose the Marlboro Pike location was that we could have five acres—we have developed 3.5 and have an option on the rest,” Pope said.
A new generation of Popes has joined the company. Lydia, who has an accounting degree, handles payroll. John, a senior majoring in aerospace at the University of Maryland, handles computer data. Julia, an employment counselor with Howard County, works in personnel designing training manuals. And Alex III, who received his degree in mortuary science from Catonsville Community College, is so deep in day-to-day management that he describes himself as too busy to sit for an interview.
With the business he steered through the latter half of the 20th century poised to enter the 21st, Alexander Pope Jr. finally decided to see what it was like not to work. In 1989, he took his first-ever vacation, a 21-day train trip with his spouse to and from a model railroad conclave in Eugene, Ore. “We went first class, with the deluxe bedroom at the end of the train,” he said. “I videotaped the whole trip, right to left to rear. On the trip out, I was away from telephones for four days for the first time in my life. The kids handled everything, and they did a fine job.”
But family-owned firms like the Popes’ will not be able to rest as the funeral home chains encroach. “They can’t lay back and say, “People gonna come to me ’cause they can’t go nowhere else,’ ” Pope said. “That is why we built Marlboro Pike as a home that is second to none. We cannot compete on the basis that blacks are going to come to us because we are black. They are going to come because we provide professional, courteous service at a good price.”
Even so, for Alexander Pope Jr., who has so many dimensions that he incorporated himself to keep them straight, there is only one aspect of his line of work that troubles him. The war that young black men are waging against themselves makes him feel helpless. “It hurts,” he said. “There is no money in it for funeral directors; most of these young men do not carry insurance. And it is more difficult for me to relate to the family. When someone’s 80-year-old granny dies, I know how to comfort her folks. But when a mother calls me and says, “The detective just told me I have to come down and ID my 17-year-old son,’ what do you say to her?”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.