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.”