Making It: Kimberly Briscoe-Tonic Opened a Funeral Home

COMFORT AMID THE GRIEF: Kimberly Briscoe-Tonic, with objects that can hold cremated remains.
COMFORT AMID THE GRIEF: Kimberly Briscoe-Tonic, with objects that can hold cremated remains. (Copyright Keith Barraclough)
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By Anita Huslin
Sunday, March 1, 2009

Death hit home for Kimberly Briscoe-Tonic in high school, when two of her grandparents and two classmates died in the span of a year. The losses left an impression on her, and as time passed she nursed a desire to help people in grief find comfort and closure.

No one close to her had been in the mortuary business: Her parents were both federal workers. So when she told her fiance, Anthony Tonic, that she wanted to be a mortician and she wanted to eventually open her own funeral home, he was dubious.

"He said to me, 'You want to do what?'" she recalls.

Her mother was a little leery, but her father encouraged her to go for it. ("My father goes to everybody's funeral. He understood," she says.)

So she apprenticed at a funeral home in Landover, and later at one in the District owned by a woman who had taken over the business after her husband died. Kim found a mortuary science program at the University of the District of Columbia and set out to learn the business.

"I figured, 'Let me try this, and if I don't like it I'll go back to become an accountant,'" she says. But she loved mortuary school, and after graduating she spent about 10 years working at other people's funeral homes. Five years ago, at age 35, she started to prepare for opening her own. Kim and Tony, now married, sold their house in Fort Washington and moved in with her parents in Accokeek, enabling them to save up $150,000. Then she learned that she had colon cancer, and she put her dreams on hold for a year of surgery and chemotherapy, until the disease went into remission.

In 2005, Kim decided to locate her business in Waldorf, then started looking for loans, but many lenders weren't funding start-ups. She finally found a community bank willing to give her a 20-year loan for the business. She then went to Chesapeake Business Finance Corp., whose lenders were impressed by the time Kim had invested in learning the mortuary business and helped her secure a federal Small Business Administration loan, with the community bank providing the rest.

"If you look at what kind of business is not going to be dependent on the economy, sadly the mortuary business is one of them," said John Sower, president of Chesapeake Business Finance, a nonprofit organization that specializes in getting small businesses off the ground. In all, it cost $1.4 million to get the Briscoe-Tonic Funeral Home built, equipped and up and running.

Kim also got help from friends and family, who pitched in to move Kim, Tony and their year-old daughter, Tristan, into an apartment above the funeral home. Her sisters chipped in to buy furnishings for the gold- and tangerine-hued viewing rooms and the sun-lit chapel, and to have the landscaping done. Her best friend gave her a webcam she uses for virtual viewings. Two friends in the mortuary business bought her some equipment, including a prayer rail for kneelers and a casket cart.

Her first client was a former neighbor from Fort Washington whose father died last June. From then through the end of the year, Kim managed 52 funerals. With the $250,000 she grossed -- "a little less than I wanted," she says, given the costs of running the business -- she was able to pay herself about $18,000 for the last four months of the year. This year, she hopes to earn $40,000, but she has told Tony, an office manager for a D.C. law firm, not to give up his job.

"Trying to get a loan and being a start-up, having no business to show --- that was an ordeal," she says. "It's been a long, long haul, but it's paying off."

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