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Warren's customers are turning to Tom May

Wednesday, September 17, 2008 | 11:41 p.m. CDT; updated 12:10 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 18, 2008
Tom May and his mother Estelle May stand in front of their business, H.T. May and Son Funeral Home, in Boonville on Wednesday. The Mays have seen an increase in business since Warren Funeral Chapel in Columbia closed.

COLUMBIA — On July 26, Tammy Horne's mother, Norlee Smith, took a turn for the worse. After suffering a series of strokes and spending years in a nursing home, Smith, 85, knew where she wanted her funeral arrangements handled: Warren Funeral Chapel in Columbia.

But that afternoon, after leaving the nursing home, Horne read in the newspaper that Attorney General Jay Nixon had filed a suit against the funeral home, alleging unsanitary conditions and mishandling of bodies. Shocked, Horne went back to be with her mother.

That night, her mother died.

A lifetime Columbia resident, Horne found herself in a situation other members of the black community have since experienced. Using the Warren funeral home had always been a given, she said. Where should she turn now?

Meanwhile, she was struggling to reconcile the predominantly positive public opinion of Harold Warren Sr. with the accusations against him.

"I felt bad," she said. "I felt bad for the Warrens," she said. "I've known Harold Warren Sr. all my life, and I know he's been a pretty reputable guy in the community. He's helped lots of people ... I felt bad for the people he affected with the decisions he made. I felt bad for us because we couldn't go to him."

At her godmother's suggestion, Horne turned to the place many of the Warrens' former clients have turned to since the Warrens' troubles came to light. She called Tom May, funeral director and embalmer at H.T. May & Son Funeral Home in Boonville.

May's funeral home is the only remaining black-owned and operated funeral home in mid-Missouri, according to several longtime residents of Columbia.

Surge in business

Since Warren Funeral Chapel closed on July 30 because of a court injunction, May said he has been twice as busy. During an average month, he said, May funeral home does about four or five funerals. But this July and August, he has done 22.

That means long hours for May. In the past, he said, he occasionally worked 12- or 14-hour days — maybe one or two days a week during busy periods. These days, he puts in 12 or 14 hours five or six days a week, he said.

May, 49, said he now drives to Columbia regularly, making a point of coming to see his clients. Horne said that's what he did with her, except for a couple of drives she made to Boonville.

May said his grandfather's uncle, Martin Riley, started the funeral home in Boonville in 1911. It has stayed in the family, and May's father, H.T., took over in 1974. May has been the director since his father died in 2005.

The funeral home now has four locations - Boonville, Fayette, Sedalia and Marshall — and May and his mother, Estelle, 69, do most of the work.

May said his father spent some time working in Columbia and, in the past, the funeral home did one or two funerals a year there. Like many Columbia residents, May has known the Warren family a long time, and he was surprised to hear the attorney general's accusations.

"(The Warrens') reputation was above-board," he said.

"It's kind of like shock. ... We never had any indication of anything like that. We were just like everyone else. It's hard to believe."

 

A new Columbia location?

 

May said he had been looking into opening a new location in Columbia, something he had not considered before Warren Funeral Chapel was temporarily closed. He has spoken with a real estate agent and is looking at possible locations.

"We're not going to be doing anything tomorrow," he said. "But it is something we're looking into doing. We feel like Columbia is an important market."

"We want to make sure the people of Columbia are not left without service," he added.

Another funeral home, Carr-Yager, is in the preliminary stages of opening a Columbia location. The company has proposed that an abandoned church at East Texas and North Garth avenues be re-zoned so it can be used as a funeral home. But owner Vernon Yager, who is not black, said the decision to look into opening a Columbia location predated the closure of Warren Funeral Chapel.

"We had been considering this well before the situation with the Warrens arose," he said.

"The Warren situation does not have any bearing on this."

 

A reverence about death

 

May estimated that 90 or 95 percent of his clients are black. All of the people who have transferred services to him from Warren are black, he said.

Asked why some of these people would use a Boonville funeral home when there are others in Columbia, May said: "Some, I'd say, is because we're African-American, and they choose to patronize an African-American business."

The separation of funeral services by race is a nationwide trend that dates back to the days of slavery, said Gayle Graham, who owns and directs a funeral home in Louisville, Ky., and is the public relations commissioner for the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

"When freedom came for the slaves," she said, "the big thing was, ‘Let your people bury your people.' Certainly you could not have a funeral home that was taking care of now-free coloreds and whites on the same embalming table or certainly not being serviced in the same way. So the funeral industry was developed for the African-American community."

Separated funeral services continue largely because of tradition and customs, Graham said.

"It's kind of like, ‘Because you look like me, you would probably be able to serve me and understand what I want,'" she said. "Certainly, others can, and others do. But it's like an unwritten ‘a-ha.'"

But, she added: "It's not just because you like me that I'd go to you. You have to have built a relationship."

The reasons members of the black community use black-owned and operated funeral homes is not unlike the reasons people frequent the same restaurants or take the same route to work each day, she said.

"It's kind of the same way with funeral service," said Graham, who is African-American. "There has always been a reverence in the black community about death."

Horne said that, before Warren Funeral Chapel was closed, it was assumed she and her family would use them for funeral services.

"It just was a given that we would automatically go to them ... just because (Warren) was the only black mortuary in town," she said.

In the end, Horne was at ease with the decision she made.

"I thank God that Tommy (May) was there and available because, if not," she said, "it would have been even worse."

 


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