It happened about a week after Tiffany A. Smith took over a funeral home that has been a fixture of downtown Overland for 80 years.
An elderly white man, with the help of a walker, came in to the lobby demanding to talk with the person in charge.
“That would be me,” Smith told the man.
“No, you’re not the guy in charge,” he said. The man wanted to know what happened to the money he had given the former owners for a prepaid funeral.
But Smith never got the chance to help him sort it out. He left in a huff. Smith thinks she wasn’t the white male funeral director he was expecting.
It was an early indicator of the challenges Smith was going to face taking over a funeral home operated by whites in a part of the St. Louis region that, while becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, remains primarily Caucasian.
“My business has grown, but not as much as I’d have liked,” said Smith, who bought the funeral home in September 2013. “It’s been a challenge branching out in this neighborhood. I’ve got to get people to step outside their prejudice.
“To unite people through death.”
The funeral business remains one of the most segregated in the country. Blacks and whites generally worship separately, so it’s no surprise those divisions also pertain to the rituals of death.
There are historic reasons for the separation, as well. Blacks saw the funeral business as an opportunity to succeed in an industry where whites initially did not want to handle the services of African-Americans.
It is an industry that grew out of the Civil War battlefields, where blacks were trained alongside whites to embalm the fallen because the number of soldiers killed was too great to handle otherwise.
But Smith, 34, is looking to the future, not the past, as she seeks to break down that racial divide.
WRITING HER OWN TICKET
Smith started in the funeral business at age 19. She was eager to grow up, graduating a year early from Cleveland Naval Junior ROTC Academy, then enrolling in a nursing program at Maryville University.
“I absolutely hated it,” Smith said. “I felt boxed in. I want to write my own ticket, see how far I can go.”
Her cousin, a beautician, did work for a funeral director in Hazelwood. She suggested Smith talk with him about a job. He offered her an apprenticeship.
Quickly, Smith knew she had made the right move. She loved building relationships, helping people in pain find comfort.
Smith’s career path is reflective of demographic changes within the profession.
In 1976, when figures were first kept by the American Board of Funeral Service Education, 13 percent of those graduating from accredited funeral service schools were women. By 2013, it was almost 56 percent. About 15 percent of graduates are African-Americans. Of those, nearly 58 percent are women.
Elleanor Starks founded 100 Black Women of Funeral Service in 1993, a support network for minorities who work in the industry. Many women who entered the profession did so coming out of health care, like Smith did.
“They always wanted to do something that takes them to that next level of caring,” said Starks, of Orlando, Fla. “Funeral service kind of encompasses a woman’s life and makes them a better fit. They’re not afraid to wipe away tears or put an arm around someone, or counsel them during a healing period.”
Smith learned while studying to be a funeral director how important that can be for a grieving family member.
On June 9, 2001, Smith’s mother was killed. An ex-boyfriend attacked her with a knife, stabbing her 36 times. Smith remembers taking her grandmother to a north St. Louis funeral home to arrange services.
“I was sitting there knowing that my mom was back there, with all those stab wounds and ripped to pieces by an autopsy,” Smith said.
The process felt cold, impersonal, like the funeral director was going down a checklist.
“The hardest part was getting my grandmother through it.”
Smith became licensed as a funeral director then embalmer. She struck out on her own in 2010, opening an embalming service for other funeral homes. For three years, she ran her business out of a small storefront in Hazelwood. But she kept thinking bigger, and asked her real estate agent for help.
“I think I found a place,” the agent said. The Baumann Colonial Chapel in Overland had closed, with its directors joining up with a nearby funeral home.
The building was for sale.
CHANGE AND TRADITION
Overland, in north St. Louis County, like the other small municipalities in this part of the region, continues to shift in demographics.
In 2000, the town of about 16,800 was nearly 84 percent white, compared to 73 percent a decade later. While Overland, like much of North County, continues to lose population, the drop was slowed by an increase in minorities. The percentage of Hispanics tripled, to 6.4 percent by 2010, and blacks jumped to 16.4 percent, compared to 11.2 percent.
Smith sees the change as a business opportunity. Most black funeral homes are clustered in the north part of the metro region, competing for the same business. She wants to be a black funeral home owner who attracts a clientele that more closely reflects Overland.
Reaching her goal could be difficult. A racial barrier still exists, much like in barber and beauty shops.
Smith says it’s not so much racism as tradition. People are willing to try new things, but trusting someone to handle the funeral of a loved one is different.
“It’s really hard to do when Mom’s at stake,” Smith said.
And she’s starting from scratch. Smith bought a building, not a business, and she must build a customer base. Clients who bought arrangements from Baumann have been redirected to the Shepard Funeral Chapel about three miles away.
The Overland location could pay off as blacks and other minorities follow earlier migration patterns of whites, said Suzanne Smith, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia.
As middle-class blacks move from the inner city, “a lot of African-American funeral homes are trying to broaden their base,” said Smith, who talks about the issue in her book, “To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death.”
In some cases, black funeral homes went so far as taking photos of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. off their walls so they wouldn’t be pegged as catering to one race, she said.
Funerals were considered the first place where blacks had autonomy. At the backs of slave quarters, they were allowed to hold services mourning their loved ones. Those sacred spaces did not last long. Funerals began doubling as meetings to plan rebellions. State laws were passed, requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.
But those services are considered the birth of the black funeral home. Before the Civil War, embalming was primarily done in medical schools. But during the war, embalming was brought to the battlefield to prepare bodies to be transported north. Blacks were allowed to learn the trade, only because there was no way 600,000 bodies could be prepared by whites alone.
Later, as the funeral home industry took off in the 1920s, so did black entrepreneurship, said Professor Smith.
But amid rising competition, black funeral home owners became aggravated that African-Americans of means found it more prestigious to be served by white funeral homes. Black funeral home directors, often community leaders in the public fight to end segregation, were privately asking white funeral homes to turn away blacks.
“They were asking them to maintain Jim Crow for their own benefit,” Professor Smith said.
As part of the early battle for business, blacks were kicked out of the National Funeral Directors Association, entrenching segregation in the business even further.
GROWING THE BUSINESS
Last week, Tiffany Smith sat in her small second-floor office overlooking the funeral home chapel. She was dressed casually, including a St. Louis Cardinals stocking cap.
A black suit hung on the back of a door, a pair of matching dress shoes by a nearby couch.
“When it’s time for me to be pretty, I’ll be pretty,” she said.
But with a fledgling business, Smith does it all, from meeting the family to preparing the body for visitation.
She has one employee and recently hired a young woman as an apprentice. Her husband, Walter, serves as vice president of the funeral home. He’s an Army staff sergeant who also works for an entity of Boeing in industrial manufacturing. He just started a funeral director apprenticeship. The couple live in Ferguson with their four children.
In 2014, the Tiffany A. Smith Life Memorial Centre handled 22 services. She would like to see that number grow to 40 to 50 this year.
She also wants to diversify the business. All but three of her services last year were for African-Americans.
She still embalms for other funeral homes, but she says she plans to cut back to devote her attention to the business bearing her name.
Her advertising budget is small, but she makes sure to include a photo of the building so folks recognize that the Overland landmark is again open for business. She said her most effective method of growing her business is word of mouth.
She’s casting a broad net, rather than targeting only black families. Recently, she joined the Overland Business Association.
Smith says it is the personal touches that will ultimately lead to her success. She has decorated her funeral home with brighter colors and contemporary furnishings, including white leather couches.
Each family receives a tribute blanket personalized with screen-printed photos of their loved ones. And the bereaved also receive a pound cake made by Smith’s 84-year-old grandmother.
“This business is about dignity and understanding,” Smith said. “I can’t take the pain away, but I can soothe you.”