Northwest funeral homes struggle to survive
By Amanda Abrams,
The news came as a shock to neighbors. Frazier’s Funeral Home, the neighborhood landmark with bright-blue awnings at the intersection of Florida and Rhode Island avenues in Northwest Washington, had been sold. But it wasn’t sold to another funeral director: The grand building is set to become luxury apartments.
“I think a lot of people were sad,” said Bobby Donaldson, 79, who’s owned B&J Carry Out, a block away, since 1972. Frazier’s handled the burial of several of his family members. “Good people there.”
It can’t be completely surprising. The business closed in 2008, and the nearby community has undergone dramatic change in the past few years. The influx of condominium buildings and swanky restaurants — with names like Bistro Bohem and the Brixton — to the west and an increase in young professionals moving to the east are harbingers that the neighborhood that grew around Frazier’s is gone and a new day has come.
In fact, Frazier’s serves as a dire symbol for black-owned funeral homes in quickly changing Northwest. For decades, owning a funeral home was a steady, well-paying job with a guaranteed stream of customers. These days, with a smaller customer base, changing tastes and a cutthroat economic climate, many of those funeral homes are struggling to find their footing.
“That had been an upstanding funeral home,” said Mechelle Baylor, 60, a third-generation LeDroit Park resident. “Now they’re saying they’re going to put condos there, and I just can’t see it.”
Thomas Frazier, a licensed mortician, established his funeral home on T Street NW in 1917. Twelve years later, he moved to the LeDroit Park location. The building, an 1890 confection by quirky English architect Charles Burden, was three rowhouses fused into one, and Frazier and his wife, Willie Mae, lived upstairs. A flier printed at the time lays out the business’s amenities: the slumber rooms, where families could visit the deceased in private; the motorized funeral coach; the smoking and lounging room for men.
The next several decades were a golden era for Frazier’s and the area’s black funeral homes. To the west, at 1432 U St., was Jarvis Funeral Home, catering to Washington’s well-heeled African American population; nine blocks east on Florida Avenue, Hall Brothers looked after more-modest families in an ornate rowhouse. Later, many funeral homes moved north to serve middle-class black families in areas including Petworth and Brightwood.
While quantitative data on black funeral homes that existed at the time is impossible to find, longtimers in the business can talk about the institutions in the area that have disappeared. There was Montgomery Brothers on Kennedy Street, Smith Funeral Home near Mount Pleasant, and Morrow and Woodford on 11th Street. They’re all gone now, mostly the result of ineffective succession plans as their founders grew older, and limited business strategies that didn’t take into account changing tastes and spending patterns.
At the time, though, they thrived. Customers were loyal, sticking with a particular funeral home the way they would a church. “People relate to funeral homes through family members that have passed through,” said Frank Smith, director of the African American Civil War Museum and a LeDroit Park resident. And funerals were major affairs, with days-long visitations capped by lavish ceremonies.
Frazier’s, which served the area’s middle-class and professional residents, gradually underwent changes. At some point in the 1950s, Formstone was added to the building’s exterior. In 1959, at age 85, Frazier died. He had no children, so the home passed to his niece and then a succession of others.
By the 1980s, Washington had fallen on harder times, and so had Frazier’s. The company ran into financial problems and was bought in 1989 by James Adkins, a black developer who owned two other funeral homes as well as Shaw’s O Street Market.
Nathaniel Simms, who worked for Adkins, remembers those days. In a way, the District’s bad times had an upside for the industry. “All of the funeral homes started taking in welfare cases. The government paid a part of the funeral,” he said. “There were shootings, killings and then AIDS. It was a steady income.”
But things continued to decline at Frazier’s. Because of a disagreement over the business’s finances, Adkins and his son, Timothy, had a falling out, Simms said.
Meanwhile, the elder Adkins was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and gradually an employee amassed enormous influence over the business.
“It was a soap opera,” said Simms, recounting the tale. By the 2000s, he said, the employee had gained power of attorney over Adkins and his wife Cilla; eventually, he refinanced their home in McLean and wrote a will in his favor. After Adkins died in 2007, Frazier’s shut down; despite Timothy Adkins’ best efforts to fight the action, court-appointed conservators eventually sold the funeral home along with the family’s other properties.
The Frazier’s story sounds like a nightmare that could only happen once. But a very similar succession-related problem also went down at Hall Brothers, where a cousin gained power of attorney over the elderly widow in charge of the business and eventually tried to sell the funeral home. In this case, though, another relative, Richard Ables, stepped in and successfully fought the cousin, though half the property was sold during the seven-year legal battle and many observers took Hall Brothers for dead.
But while finding someone to successfully carry on the business is a major question for many generational funeral homes in Northwest DC today, it’s far from the only one.
Probably the biggest issue is a trend occurring across the country: an increase in cremations, largely due to budgetary factors. “Monetary implications are a key factor in most memorialization decisions. Cremation provides an affordable alternative that many find appealing,” explains the Cremation Association of North America’s 2011 annual report.
In fact, there’s a big difference in price: direct cremation averages $2,000, compared to roughly $7,000 for a full funeral. While African-Americans are less likely than whites to choose cremation, DC’s numbers have nonetheless risen, up from 30 percent in 2006 to 37 percent in 2010, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Funeral directors all over the city are reporting a major increase that’s hurting business. Even full funeral services have gotten distinctly leaner. “Viewings are shorter—they happen in one day, rather than over a few days, and it all occurs at the church,” said Hall Brothers’ Ables.
Changing trends are one problem. Another is a changing DC. Black families are moving out of the city, leaving behind longtime business relationships. “We see a definite change in the community,” said Milton Tellington, the owner of Petworth’s Tri-State Funeral Services. “People who move to Maryland don’t come back.”
The new residents who’ve taken their place, meanwhile, are much less likely to use the traditional homes’ services. “The residents have gotten younger,” said R. Bowman Horton, the owner of Horton’s, a large, 76-year-old Brightwood establishment, and a member of the DC Board of Funeral Directors.
More important, though, is the fact that they lack the generational ties to a neighborhood and a funeral home that were so crucial in the past. “Traditionally, families use funeral homes that loved ones used in the past, but their parents are in different states,” explained Horton. “There’s no heritage here.”
Some businesses have shifted strategy and begun catering to Latino populations, hiring Spanish-speaking funeral directors to take advantage of the relationships there. Others, like the longtime Johnson and Jenkins Funeral Home in Brightwood, have added a Prince George’s County branch that, in part, subsidizes the historic DC location.
But perhaps the biggest challenge facing DC funeral directors is the imperative to change. For many years, tradition was king; these days due to the pressures of an unforgiving economy or the frenetic pace of technological change, owners have to be ready to innovate.
Gregory Burrell, president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, which represents African American funeral homes, says his members commonly forget about responding to the changing needs of the market. “What we’ve seen over the years is that a lot of these people have inherited these businesses, and they run them more like mom and pop operations,” he said. “I believe we’ll see a lot of smaller firms not make it.”
That’s a topic Horton is passionate about. “It’s about vision,” he said. Horton says he sees himself as more of an event planner nowadays than anything else, and regularly attends conventions to learn about the latest trends and technologies. His is one of the few historic funeral homes with a Web site, and he has plans to modernize the establishment in order to, ideally, bring in white customers. “If you don’t think about these things, you’re going to perish.”
Lots of changes
It’s too late for Frazier’s. The 5,500-square-foot property was bought last year by Thomas Swarm, a white developer and general contractor, for $850,000.
It seems to be a done deal, but Timothy Adkins is fighting for his father’s estate, arguing that its conservators lacked the approvals to sell the D.C. properties. That would make the building’s sale illegal, but the battle could be a long shot.
A few blocks west, Ables finally finished his own court fight in August and is ready to focus on the business again. He’s got plans: to buy a new awning, take the paint off the impressive edifice so that it really stands out, bring in new customers.
Of course, it’s a different era from when his uncles, the original Hall brothers, ran the place.
“Lots of changes around here,” he mused, looking out at busy Florida Avenue. “Some good, some not.”