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Dayton’s Black-Owned Funeral Homes Struggle To Stay In Business

Dwayne Bickham has worked at Bowman and Young Funeral Chapel since he was 17, in 1979.
Lewis Wallace

The funeral or “death-care” industry brings in an estimated $20 billion a year in the U.S., but the industry is changing. There’s been a shift towards chain funeral homes, and more people are choosing cremation, and that has black-owned funeral homes particularly worried about staying above ground in Dayton and beyond.

Bowman and Young Funeral Home on the west side of Dayton is straight out of the year it was built, 1963: low ceilings, retro colors. Dwayne Bickham has been working here since he was 17 years old in 1979. He says the area was thriving when he was a kid.

“People in this community had jobs, we had Frigidaire, we had Inland,” he says. Now those factories are long-gone, and a lot of people have left the neighborhood, too. White flight and the foreclosure crisis have chipped away at west Dayton. “People lost a lot of jobs, and the money’s not flowing like it used to.”

“The children and grandchildren don’t live in Dayton,” says funeral director Keith Young. These days, the people shopping for a funeral service could live hundreds of miles away; they’re literally phoning it in from California or Florida or just the suburbs. Or, they’re going online instead of calling the local funeral home they grew up with.

Enter the competition: funeral home chains, which went through a big boom and a spate of buy-outs in the 1990s, and now seem to be resurging. They’ve got the internet on lock, and TV ads in prime spots. One chain for a Bowman and Young competitor runs ads in Ohio depicting it as family-owned despite the fact that the owners live in Kansas and have chains across Ohio, including several in Dayton. Young says while he respects the business strategy, he can’t afford TV ads.

Meanwhile, black undertakers are in decline: in one survey of mortician schools, the percentage of black students went from 27 percent seven years ago to just 15 percent in 2014. As the demographics and populations of black neighborhoods have changed, funeral directors have been struggling to adapt.

“They have had to either relocate their business to where some of their clientele has moved, or re-market their business to immigrant families,” says Suzanne Smith, a professor at George Mason University and author of “To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African American Way of Death.”

Some people here in west Dayton are activelycalling on residents to stick to black-owned funeral homes; Keith Young has teamed up with Jerome McCorry, a pastor and community activist.

McCorry says these institutions have had a role that goes way beyond the business of death.

“It’s the black-owned funeral homes who take out the ads in the pastor’s anniversary booklet. It’s the black-owned funeral homes that support the NAACP and that support community initiatives, because our funeral homes have always been a part of the community,” McCorry says.

Still, it’s all about money: Ads and internet pricing lists can make a funeral home across town look pretty good in a pinch, even though on average, chains end up costing more than independents.

But Keith Young says the city’s legacy of segregation is also at play: The practice of heading across town to a funeral home operated by someone of a different race isn’t reciprocal. He gestures east, towards the bridge over the river to downtown, to the side of Dayton and the suburbs where more white people live.

“Until this area economically gets built back up, I can’t foresee white families coming across the bridge to see us,” Young says.

And he says some of his clients have been surprised by the final price tag at the chains across town.

“People get over there and find out that it’s not what they said it was gonna be.  And they come back to the west side of Dayton,” he says. “They come back home.”

African-American funerals are often called homegoings, and Young just hopes the next generation will stay connected, and keep coming back home for their funerals.



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