By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 16, 1997
c. 1997 Newhouse News Service
CHICAGO – Life is good at Leak and Sons Funeral Chapel, burying black Chicagoans on the South Side since 1933 and burying 10 more this bitter, bone-chiller of a snow-white Saturday.
By Sunday morning, the “slumber rooms” are replenished with new customers so nicely prepared that they look too good to have died, even as Spencer Leak Sr. takes to the airwaves for the weekly radio show broadcast live from the funeral home.
“When I go home to be with the Lord,” Leak says with rising passion, “I hope my sons – I don’t hope my sons, I know my sons – are going to carry on this business. We are not going to let any power, any principality, any conglomerate, if you will, steal the blessing that the Lord has given us in the establishment and sustainment of this great business.”
Beneath the bravado there is a foreboding about the future, not only at Leak but at black funeral homes across the country.
What do they fear?
The Loewen Group, a huge Canadian funeral home and cemetery conglomerate that has trained its sights on doing business in the black community and, most remarkably, has enlisted as its ally the largest organization of black churches in the nation, the National Baptist Convention USA.
In an agreement signed in 1995, the National Baptist Convention endorsed Loewen as its “death-care provider of choice.”
That kicked off a controversy in which a black death-care sales force may pit preacher against undertaker at the crossroads of black economic empowerment and black entombment.
It also launched Loewen on a harrowing journey down the rapids of American racial politics, which has already cost it many millions of dollars at the hands of an angry, integrated Mississippi jury.
The National Baptist Convention USA (the separate, smaller National Baptist Convention of America is not a party to this deal) represents 33,000 churches and 8.5 million members. Under the 1995 agreement, church members will sell graves, crypts, niches, vaults, urns and headstones in Loewen cemeteries to other church members. In exchange, everyone from the church pastor to local, state and national black Baptist organizations will get a commission.
To critics, it is an unholy alliance between the sacred institution that tends the souls of black folk and a soulless white corporation only interested in their money. Betrayed, they charge, will be the one black-owned business that not only thrived in segregation but survived integration – the funeral home.
“It’s almost like Judas and the 30 pieces of silver,” said Earle Banks, the fourth-generation owner of People’s Funeral Home in Jackson, Miss. “Are black churches for sale? At this point, I’d have to say if they are affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, the answer may be ‘yes.’
Dr. Henry Lyons, president of the Baptist Convention, said the concerns are unfounded and called the charges both deeply wounding and unfair.
“It’s not about 30 pieces of silver,” said Lyons, pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla. “It’s about a great deal more. A great deal more.”
Lyons portrays himself as more Jesus than Judas here. “Everybody wants to nail me to the cross,” he said. “My intentions were and are totally noble and honest.
“I tell you, ain’t nobody any blacker than Henry Lyons.”
Lyons said he envisioned the deal with Loewen as a way to put black people, especially women coming off welfare, to work selling cemetery services. In the process, he said, he would harness black buying power in one realm where everybody will inevitably be spending their dollars anyway.
Lyons believes that if the black community can prove its grave-buying power, he will eventually be able to return to Loewen and say, “give the black church some ownership” in the cemetery business. His dream, he said, is for the black church to own cemeteries like the Catholic Church does.
In the meantime, he said, the agreement with Loewen only applies to cemetery products and precludes Loewen from trying to sell funeral services to the new customers brought in under the program. It does not, and, he said, never will, threaten the business of black funeral homes.
When he dies, Lyons promises his body will go to a black funeral home before it goes to rest in a Loewen cemetery.
Black funeral directors say Lyons is naive if he doesn’t realize that this agreement is merely the foot in the door for Loewen. As certain as death, they say, Loewen will eventually either buy black funeral homes outright or compete with them.
In the past, the black funeral business was sheltered by race and poverty. Whites were not interested in competing for black bodies because of the color line and the reduced profit potential with a poorer clientele.
Today, however, the black funeral market looks riper because African-Americans are resisting popular trends toward cremation and minimalist funerals.
“I have yet to meet any black people, whatever their status, who do not feel that the way in which you go out is important, very important,” said C. Eric Lincoln, a leading scholar of the black church.
And increasingly, Lincoln said, blacks are being seen less as a race apart than as simply another market.
For Loewen, it is also a hitherto untapped market. In barely more than a decade, Loewen, based in Burnaby, British Columbia, has bought some 1,000 funeral homes and more than 300 cemeteries, mostly in the United States.
Loewen is the No. 2 player in a changing death-care industry. A tiny handful of large conglomerates own about 10 percent of all funeral homes in the United States and perform a higher percentage of all funerals. And their share of the market grows each year, even as the number of deaths climbs 1 percent annually toward the next century, when baby boomers die.
And yet, the largest conglomerates do not appear to have made a dent yet in the black funeral market, though precise figures are not available.
Even Loewen’s corporate spokesman, David A. Laundy, said Loewen does not now own any funeral homes in the black community, but it would like to.
When it announced its deal with the Baptist Convention in 1995, Loewen also announced a $50 million partnership with a leading black funeral home operator in Los Angeles to begin buying black homes.
That partnership foundered, and that fall Loewen found itself on trial in Jackson, Miss., in an $8.5 million fraud and breach-of-contract dispute with a white funeral home operator from Biloxi.
While it was not directly related to the case, Loewen tried to woo the seven black jurors by calling a representative of the Baptist Convention to testify about their pact.
Instead, the jurors, black and white, were so repelled by what they saw as Loewen taking advantage of the black churchmen that they dramatically upped their damage award against Loewen to a record $500 million.
“It reeked,” said Akida Emir, a black juror.
“The point was, we had to stop [Loewen] from doing this … to poor black people,” recalled Glenn Millen, the jury foreman, who is white.
The judgment (Loewen ultimately settled the case for $175 million) did not stop Loewen from making its pact with the Baptists.
A few blocks from the Capitol in Washington stands Pleasant Lane Baptist Church, built by freed slaves in 1863. In the basement, the latest class of cemetery sales recruits practices its pitches on each other on the final night of two weeks of training.
They press the wisdom of making cemetery arrangements now, and the 10 percent discount for buying through the National Council of African-American Churches, the marketing firm established by the Baptist Convention to sell for Loewen.
One after another also invokes the name of Martin Luther King Jr. and talks about Lyons’ vision of black economic empowerment.
“You have to explain how important this is to our community,” said Belinda Porch, who was trained last summer and is now training others.
The pastor at Pleasant Lane is Dr. John Chaplin, Lyons’ second-in-command in the Baptist Convention and in the National Council of African-American Churches.
So far, he said, 90 black churches in and around Washington have signed on, along with five funeral homes. In its first year, they did about $600,000 in sales, but, said Chaplin, it’s only just begun.
Already, a similar effort is under way in St. Petersburg, and Chaplin said Detroit or Chicago is next.
In addition to the 10 percent sales commission and 10 percent discount, there are also commissions on each sale for the church pastor and local, state and national church organizations. Altogether, a third of the sale is spoken for.
“Who is not going to be on commission?” asked Norman Williams, whose family owns Unity Funeral Parlors in Chicago. “People in the parish will never know who to trust any more because everybody will have their hand out.”
Otto Ali, another South Side funeral director who chairs the black National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, believes Lyons’ dream of gaining black ownership of cemeteries through Loewen is nothing but a dream.
The black funeral home community on the South Side worries about Loewen’s purchase of two big cemeteries in their midst – Oak Woods and Lincoln – and about who among them will be the first to sell out to Loewen.
Even before a single funeral home is sold, though, there is an uneasiness that a distinctive piece of black life is on the brink that, as C. Eric Lincoln put it, “one more final sanctuary … is about to be eroded.”
“Black people are going to have to look at themselves once more and ask what it means to be black,” said Lincoln, a retired teacher at Duke University.