NEWS FEATURE: Black funeral Homes fear corporate takeover aided by church

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c. 1997 Religion 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 on a recent bitterly cold Saturday.

By Sunday morning, the “slumber rooms” are replenished with new customers so nicely prepared they look too well to have died, even as owner 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,” says Leak 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.”

But beneath Leak’s bravado there is a foreboding about the future, not only for himself but for black funeral homes across the country.

The Loewen Group, a white-owned, huge Canadian funeral home and cemetery conglomerate, has set its sights on doing business in the African-American community. Moreover, it has enlisted as its ally in this endeavor the largest black Baptist denomination in the nation _ the National Baptist Convention, USA.

In an agreement signed in the summer of 1995 and punctuated with a $100,000 Loewen contribution to the denomination’s Christian Education Fund, the National Baptist Convention endorsed Loewen as its “death-care provider of choice.”

With that, it kicked off a strange and unsettling controversy that may pit black preacher against black undertaker at the crossroads of African-American economic empowerment.

It has also launched Loewen on a harrowing journey down the rapids of American racial politics, which has already cost it many tens of millions of dollars at the hands of an angry and integrated Mississippi jury.

The National Baptist Convention, USA (there is a separate, smaller National Baptist Convention of America that is not a party to this deal) represents some 33,000 churches and 8.5 million members.

Under the 1995 agreement, members of these congregations _ or any other church that wants to join the effort _ will be trained to sell on commission to other members of their local church.

They will sell graves, crypts, niches, vaults, urns and headstones in Loewen cemeteries. In exchange, everyone from the church pastor to local, state and national denominational organizations will get a commission on each sale.

To critics, it is an unholy alliance between the sacred institution that tends the souls of African-Americans 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,” says 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.”’

But the Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, says the concerns are unfounded, and the charges both deeply wounding and unfair.

“It’s not about 30 pieces of silver,” says Lyons. “It’s about a great deal more. A great deal more.”

Lyons portrays himself more as Jesus than Judas here.

“Everybody wants to nail me to the cross,” says Lyons. But, he insists, “My intentions were and are totally noble and honest … I tell you, ain’t nobody any blacker than Henry Lyons.”

Lyons says 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 says, he would harness black buying power in a realm where everybody will inevitably be spending their dollars anyway.

“Unfortunately,” says Lyons, who pastors Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., “death in the black community is big business. We either die by natural causes or, unfortunately, we get killed by the carload.”

Lyons believes that if the African-American 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 says, is for the black church to own cemeteries just like the Roman Catholic Church.

In the meantime, he says, 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 says 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 comes to rest in a Loewen cemetery.

But 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 with funeral homes conveniently sited at their cemeteries.

“It’s a first step,” says Robert L. Creal, who has owned a funeral home not far from Lyons’ church in St. Petersburg since 1955. “The church is being blind-sided. I don’t think (Lyons) realizes the gravity of what he’s done.”

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In the past, the black funeral business was sheltered from the mainstream by race and poverty. Whites were not very interested in competing for black bodies because of the color line and because of the reduced profit potential with a poorer clientele.

Today, however, the black funeral market looks a little 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,” says C. Eric Lincoln, a leading scholar of the black church.

And increasingly, says Lincoln, blacks, for better or worse, are being seen less as a race apart than as just another market.

For Loewen, it is also an untapped market.

In barely more than a decade, Loewen, headquartered 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, where a tiny handful of large conglomerates now own about 10 percent of all funeral homes in the United States and perform a higher percentage of all funerals. Each year, their share of the market grows.

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.

Loewen’s corporate spokesman, David A. Laundy, says Loewen does not now own any funeral homes in the black community, but would like to.

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When it announced its deal with the National Baptist Convention, USA, back in 1995, Loewen also announced a $50 million partnership with a leading black funeral home operator in Los Angeles to begin buying black homes.

But that partnership foundered, and that same fall Loewen found itself on trial in Jackson, Miss., in a complicated $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 National Baptist Convention, USA, 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,” says Akida Emir, a black juror.

“The point was we had to stop (Loewen) from doing this … to poor black people,” recalls Glenn Millen, the jury foreman, who is white.

But the sobering judgment (Loewen ultimately settled the case for $175 million) did not detour Loewen from its pact with the National Baptist Convention, USA.

A few blocks from the Capitol in Washington _ the first city where the sales plan has been put into action _ 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 National Baptist Convention, USA, to sell for Loewen.

But, one after another, they also invoke the name of Martin Luther King Jr. and talk about Lyons’ vision of black economic empowerment.

“You have to explain how important this is to our community,” says Belinda Porch, who was trained last summer and is now training others.

The pastor at Pleasant Lane is the Rev. John Chaplin, Lyons’ second-in-command in both the denomination and in the National Council of African-American Churches.

So far, he says, 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, says Chaplin, it’s only just begun.

Already, a similar effort is underway in Lyons’ hometown of St. Petersburg, and Chaplin says either 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 denominational organizations. Altogether, a third of the sale is spoken for. Loewen gets the rest.

“Who is not going to be on commission?” asks Norman Williams, whose family owns Unity Funeral Parlors on Chicago’s South Side. “People in the parish will never know who to trust anymore because everybody will have their hand out.”

MJP END TILOVE

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