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Interview with O`dell Beasley

Beasley, O`dell
Glenn, Luba
Date of Interview: 
black-owned business; funeral home; funerary practices; segregation; crime; funeral services; low-income citizens; financing; credit plans; estate planning; ministry; financial advising
Founder and owner of Charlotte's Beasley's Funeral Home, the Reverend O`dell Beasley discusses the services he and his staff offer their clients, including transportation, funeral service planning, financial advising, and burial. Beasley discusses his commitment to low-income citizens, many of whom comprise the business' clientele, and discusses available financing plans and price-conscious funerals. He also offers specifics on the state's support for indigent burials. He contends that the funeral business remains the most segregated industry in the nation, and discusses his desire to broaden their service across the color line. A former pastor, Rev. Beasley sees the funeral business as a true ministerial endeavor, and encourages young men and women to consider a career in his industry.
Charlotte, 1978-1992
Interview Setting: 
Beasley's Funeral Home
Levine Museum of the New South, Local History Series
LG (Luba Glenn): Museum of the New South Oral History Project. The date is July the 22nd, 1992. The time is--?
OB (O dell Beasley): Quarter--, 12-45.
LG: And I'm at Beasley's Funeral Home. The interviewer is Luba Glenn, and I am interviewing Mr. Reverend O`dell Beasley. Tell me, Mr. Beasley, how long have you been in the funeral business?
OB: In--, my father's been in the funeral business fifty years, and I worked for him as a lad in Lawrence, South Carolina. I spent the most of my life as a minister, as an evangelist, and as a pastor, pastor in the city of Charlotte for nineteen years. I've only been in the funeral business in Charlotte, North Carolina fourteen and a half years.
LG: And have you enjoyed your years as a funeral director?
OB: Most definitely. It's a ministry.
LG: What made you want to become a mortician?
OB: Well, I'm not a mortician. A mortician is a funeral director and an embalmer. I am a--.
LG: Oh, so you don't embalm the bodies?
OB: No. I--. No, no, I am a funeral director. We do embalm bodies here.
LG: So what--? Could you tell me, what is the difference between a regular funeral package and a deluxe funeral package?
OB: Well, very simple. A regular funeral package would be a person that just wanted a simple, regular standard funeral. A deluxe--. It, it means that you want a extra super funeral with all the trimmings and the extras that goes along with it.
LG: Could you tell me what some of those extras might be?
OB: Such as extra limousines, a more expensive casket, extra services that the ordinary funeral home wouldn't ordinarily give. A family would want a more refined detail of services on the funeral.
LG: OK. So people are wanting more deluxe services. Do you have more op--? I mean, are, are the more deluxe funerals in demand, you know, today or are people wanting, you know--?
OB: Well, yes and no. We are going through a recession at the present. People are very dollar conscious. They still would like to have a nice funeral. They don't want to compromise because of money crunch; therefore, at Beasley we still try to give the same service to the community. The same dignity to the community regardless of whether they buy the deluxe funeral, whether they buy a pauper's or whether they buy a mediocre funeral. Our services are the same. Reason being is because when a person have bereavement in their family, they may have a lack fin--, but they don't loose their pride.
LG: True. That is very true. But OK. Today, I'm sure there's a lot of difference in, you know, today and in years, re--, past years. But is there a difference in the type of service, you know, that goes on for a funeral today than there was maybe twenty years ago? Is the service different?
OB: Oh, most definitely. Service will vary sometime from one area to another. For instance, twenty years ago more or less when I came to Charlotte it was a custom at that time that the funeral directors had, I think, gotten together through their local organization and agreed that they would only basically furnish one or two cars on a funeral. When we started doing business here several years ago, we started to serve the family based on their needs, not necessarily based on the traditions. Give you another example, most funeral homes charges a family for anything over one or two cars. We usually, if a family--. We, we try to serve a family based on their needs. If the need is there for extra cars, we try to supply that family with those cars. Number two, there are needs before the funeral arrive. We are the only funeral home in the last fourteen years--. We are the--. Even now, we render free transportation to the hospital, to the doctor's office free of charge. Been doing it for years. So we--. Our motto is "Serving the Living and Burying the Dead," so we get involved in the, in sometime in the basic needs of the family before death, during death, and also after death.
LG: Can you tell me if you, you know, could, there has been a lot of, you know, black-on-black crime and the death rate has really skyrocketed. What, what has been the major cause of death that you think in the recent years as to in the past?
OB: I think when you mentioned, you mentioned about death rate was crime. I think crime is one of the leading factors of death now. That's throughout the world, not just Charlotte alone.
LG: And so you think it's just crime?
OB: I think it's the leading cause of death.
LG: So what were people dying from mainly twenty years ago, ten years ago?
OB: Well, a great percentage of them was dying from natural causes of death. And I think that one of the leading causes, especially among our young people. People have always died; they always will die. We have so many new diseases now. A lot of people are living shorter lives because--. They're living a shorter life because they're living so much faster. And I think because of living in the fast track, the fast lane of life, it's shortening their lives. Not necessarily by drugs alone but by bad company, by drug abuse. [Knocking sound] Come in.
US (Unidentified speaker): Is your phone off the hook?
OB: It is now.
LG: See--, how long have you stored a body in your funeral home?
OB: Well longest is about two weeks. Sometime family members are finally getting together with finances and sometime they (need) looking for relatives and so forth. Normally within a week's time we, we bury a person, but sometime you may have to go two weeks.
LG: And how, how long has the longest funeral been in this home, you know, as to minutes, hours? How long have you held a funeral?
OB: The funeral service itself?
LG: Yes.
OB: Oh three hours, depending upon the person's status in life.
LG: When you started a new--? This is a new building, isn't it?
OB: We renovated it.
LG: Oh.
OB: We're in our new location; it's new to us.
LG: Yeah. It is, it is--.
OB: We started off in an old dilapidated house. The public grew with us down through the years. It is the public and God who calls us to be here. Places in Charlotte like Dalton Village, Piedmont Court, Earle Village. The poor people of Charlotte, the less fortunate, they gave birth to Beasley's Funeral Home because it was they who supported us in our older facilities, and eighty percent of our business today is still supported by what we call common-class people. So when you think about Beasley's Funeral Home, you always talk about our funeral home because it is the public who supported us, and it was the less fortunate who gave birth to Beasley.
LG: And how long has--? I mean what are your business hours?
OB: Twenty-four hours a day.
LG: So you are here most of the night.
OB: Twenty-four hours a day.
LG: Oh, well. And do, do you have a round estimate of how many bodies you might handle in one year?
OB: I have exact figures. Last year, the first year we went in business, I can tell you. The first year we went in business we did, in 1968, we did eight cases; the next year we did sixteen cases; the next year we did thirty--, twenty-four cases; the third year we did thirty-five. And then we started price war of giving people discounts on funerals, and then we exceeded from that to fifty. And then following year we did a 189 and from that 250. Last year we did 379 bodies, and this year we've had almost 200. We believe in living and letting live. All our funeral prices are half price. We have a handbill. I will give you a handbill before you leave. Regardless of what price you get from any funeral in the United States, we'll sell you the same funeral, the same casket for half the amount.
LG: Is it possible to get a layaway plan
OB: Yes ma'am.
LG: for a funeral and just pay installments?
OB: Yes ma'am. They call that pre-need.
LG: Oh. And like how much, if you want the deluxe funeral package, how much would an installment payment be on a deluxe, on a premier funeral--?
OB: You, you name it yourself. You name the amount you want to pay. There's no certain amount.
LG: Oh, so you can set the amount as to how much you can pay?
OB: That's correct.
LG: That's wonderful. And this is a family business?
OB: Yes ma'am.
LG: So you run this business. Who helps you run this business?
OB: My wife, my son, my daughter. I have a son he's LaDell, he's LaDell Beasely. He's twenty-three. He has finished mortuary school. I have a daughter eight--, Crystal, over there. She's be eighteen. She be graduated next month. (Garthene) Jones, he's coming back as our vice president. My son is also vice president, and we have a good competent staff.
LG: So you run this, you are the president?
OB: They call me that.
LG: And your son and your daughter are vice presidents.
OB: And my wife.
LG: And you wife. So your family, they enjoy helping you to run this business?
OB: Yes ma'am.
LG: Well, the building is lovely.
OB: Thank you.
LG: And it's very neatly operated and ran. I think it's a wonderful, you know, that you can come and get quality services at low prices, and I really enjoyed touring your building and talking with you today, and--.
OB: That's one of our handbills.
LG: If you don't have anything that you might like to say--.
OB: I'd like to say this to you ma'am. First, I want to congratulate you to come by. I hope it will served to inspire those who are in the business to stay in the business. I would like to see more young people become inspired to enter funeral business. Funeral business is a good profession. It is an open door business to all people. We've been--. The problem we've had in the funeral business here in the Charlotte area and in the other areas is in respect black funeral home is it is hard for the funeral, black funeral home to transcend from a people business. Funeral business is so far is still the most prejudiced business in the United States. It's the most segregated business in the United States. Did you know that?
LG: No, I didn't.
OB: All businesses as a whole have been integrated, banks, schools, almost every business you know. Churches have been integrated. The funeral business is yet to be the most segregated business in the United States. People still go to black on black, white on white. Occasionally white bury black. Occasionally blacks bury whites. I buried fifty white people last year. I buried twenty white funerals this year. We have more white business here at Beasley than any funeral home in Charlotte, but we're a long ways from being integrated. One of our greatest struggles now is to initiate a people's business in Charlotte. Not a black business, not a white business, but a people's business.
LG: So you're saying that the funeral business is segregated. And why do you think white people bury whites and black people bury blacks?
OB: The line of integration has not come. People still have that pride. The blacks still go on that basis of the blacks, and the white are still go on the basis of the whites. [Pause] Mostly all the businesses you know of, you walk in a business, at the business you see McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, restaurant, banks, throughout. Name, go downtown anywhere and you see black and white. You walk in the average funeral home, you only see that particular color. It is yet the most prejudice business in the United States.
LG: What do you think that funeral homes united can do to bring this segregation to an end?
OB: Well, I don't think the funeral home in particular are looking for that particular area. I feel as a whole that the blacks feel that if they push on the blacks to integrate the white funeral homes. The blacks as a whole, we are inferior. We feel there's a whole--. There's some duties- I don't- that if they open the doors the most of our blacks, upper-class Negroes will go to the white community for service. And I, and I feel that there are some, there are some certain black, white funeral directors don't necessarily want black business because they feel that if they open the door, they'll start losing some clientele.
LG: So you're saying that upper-class black people would, instead of coming to a black funeral home, would rather go and have a service in a white funeral home?
OB: Certain, certain blacks.
LG: Certain.
OB: Certain blacks would do that. But now that the blacks are, like our facilities, now that the blacks are, and there, there are some other funeral homes in Charlotte that are just as competent as Beasley are beginning to update, upgrade their facilities and their rolling (start) and compete with the white funeral homes and have the same type of facilities. I don't feel that we would have as many black on black going to white funeral homes because they have better facilities because now we also have the, the equal, equal facilities. So what we are trying to do now is, that's why we advertise in telephone directory. That's why we advertise all people. That's why I said our greatest struggle here at Beasley is trying to establish a people's business, not a black business to let people know we bury it black, green, blue, whoever you may be.
LG: Do you like, when you sell your funerals, if a family has, you know, a death in, in the family and they don't have the money right away, what, what would the process be? What would they have to do in order to--?
OB: On my handbill I gave you a few minutes ago, you have on there a pauper's. If a family do not have any money, and don't care to borrow any money or care to spend any money, social services will pay the funeral director, a minimum for that particular baby. It would pay for funeral director a minimum of 100 dollars, 106 dollars for an infant, from the age of one years of age up. If it's a child from one year to five years, the social services will pay the funeral director 240 dollars and give them a grave free. If it's a child from five to ten years of age, the social services pay the funeral home 320 dollars and give them a grave free. If it's an adult and they don't have any money, no insurance, social services will pay the funeral home 400 dollars and give them a grave free. Now if they would like to have a decent funeral, then if they pay us X number of dollars down and we work out a, a credit agreement plan with them, then we in turn would try to work out where they can have what we call a different status of funeral.
LG: So they could pay a certain amount of money and after the funeral they can pay--?
OB: By the month
LG: By the month until they have cleared their debt.
OB: That's correct.
LG: Is that effective? Have you had a lot of funerals like that?
OB: We have over a 100,000 dollars on our books.
LG: So.
OB: That, that may represent over a 1,000 families over a period of years. Some pay and some don't. But in life you can't win them all.
LG: So you cannot take legal action against the family?
OB: We can, but we never have. We can take legal action. I have never carried a family to court. I never turned an account over to an attorney.
LG: So you don't believe in turning them in them to the credit bureau?
OB: Well, we haven't turned them into the credit bureau. What we try to normally do--. Let me to explain it to you. I was born out of wedlock. My mother and father never married. We were raised on welfare. I know what it is to be poor. And I'm not saying I'm not poor now, but, but if you step on a person while they're down, you're the loser in the long run. You have to always forget about the (grease that bought your pork). You sell a person what they can afford. You don't oversell them, and you deal with them according to what they can afford to pay. And sometimes a person cannot afford to pay you, but as always it's a moral. And you must think about if that person gets out of his plight. And the Bible says, "He that giveth to the poor, lendeth to the Lord."
LG: So, the most of the religious, I mean the funerals that you have here, could you, do you know what denomination of funerals you have here most? Like Baptist or A.M.E. Zion?
OB: Most are Baptist. More are Protestants, and Protestants come under Baptist, Methodist and so forth.
LG: How many people usually attend a funeral?
OB: On the average, the average funeral from a 150 to 250. Sometimes 300. Occasionally 400.
LG: So there is a process that you go to have a funeral? Before the actual funeral what is done, you know, as according to the service?
OB: Well, the service is done--. Once the person has a death in the family, they call the funeral director and select, elect, elect, the funeral director. We go pick up the remains up at the hospital where the person dies, and then we get permission from the family to embalm. Then from there the family comes in a couple of days later and makes their funeral arrangements.
LG: And then after the funeral arrangements, I mean and the body is picked up, do, do they have like a wake service
OB: Oh yeah.
LG: at the funeral home or is it can it be at any place of their choice?
OB: Any place of their choice. Once the family comes in and finalize that business and detail, in other words date, time, place of funeral and wake, then that, wherever they want to have the wake, wherever they want to have the funeral, that's their choice. We take orders here, funeral homes, not just at Beasley, we take orders, we don't give orders. Our job is to carry out the wish of the family.
LG: So you can make the decorations, the flowers and everything in your establishment here?
OB: Yes ma'am. We, we are the only black funeral home in Charlotte that owns its own florist and has a florist in the funeral home.
LG: So flowers. And would you say that the flowers that you could sell with your funeral package here are cheaper, or lower priced than the ones that you could go to an actual florist, you know, in the city and buy and bring for the funeral?
OB: Most definitely.
LG: So are your flowers half price too?
OB: No, no. Flowers is--. The florist here is operated by Mrs. Norman, Norman's Florist although it's at Beasley's Funeral Home, and we're in charge, but the flowers are not half price. The only half price here at the Beasley is casket and service. That's, that's--. The flowers are different, but yet they're still more reasonable.
LG: So she makes flowers, Mrs. Norman?
OB: Mrs. Norman.
LG: For other things than funerals?
OB: Oh, most definitely she does. Weddings, she makes flowers for other funerals. It's not just the Beasley's Funeral Home clients; it's for anybody. You can, you can walk off the street and buy flowers.
LG: How much free time do you have outside of your business?
OB: Free time?
LG: Yes.
OB: I work most time twenty-four hours a day.
LG: So you don't have very much free time. But when you do have a spare moment, what do you do in your spare time?
OB: Attend churches. Attend other churches. Go to community functions and spend some time with my family.
LG: Oh, so you do like to spend a lot of time with your family?
OB: My family is my next, is my next most important thing I have other than my soul.
LG: Uh-huh. Could you elaborate on some of the community functions that you attend?
OB: Oh yes. No problem. We, we're, we're involved in family reunions. We are involved in some of the civil right activities in the city. We are involved in some of the local civic organizations who are trying to help the community. This past year we furnished one of those little leagues, baseball teams in the community and it's called Beas--, called Beasley Blue Jays. We get involved in advertising things like hand fans. We get involved in the community where we help people move. We are involved in the organizations and support organizations. We contribute to financial organizations who are trying to put on civic affairs, so we're very much actively involved in the community.
LG: Of all the things that you have accomplished in your lifetime and in your business, what are you the most proud of as owner, you know, of Beasley's Funeral Home?
OB: Well, Beasley's Funeral Home to me is secondary. I'm a preach--, I'm a pastor. I'm a preacher. I spent most of my life as a pastor and evangelist. I tried and I hope one day I get back to pasturing. I applied myself not in--. I don't want to go down in history being known as a funeral director. Nor do I want to be left in the community known as a businessman. I'd like to be remembered by my peers as a, as a minister. And I'd like to apply the gospel of the Christian teachings that I've been taught to apply to burying the dead. I'm caring for the living at a time of need, but my greatest priority is ministerial work.
LG: Oh, so you would like to be remembered as a minister?
OB: As a person who ministered to the needs of the community. Not just for the pulpit, but ministered at the time of death. And I look at the funeral business as a ministry because you're dealing with people at a time when they, when they've lost a loved one. You're dealing with a people at a time when, when they are broken hearted. You're dealing with a people at a time when they are very sensitive because they've been hurt. So I look at it as a healing process, and it is a ministry.
LG: So you feel that after the services and all the kind treatments and, you know, ministering that the family gets, that that should help them to feel better after their family member or friend has passed away?
OB: I think it should help them. That's what--. See the old word for funeral director is--, funeral home, the old word is undertaker. That's what they used to call it in the olden days. Undertaker. In other words, we're going to call somebody to undertake our grief. We're going to take some--, we're going to call somebody to go under our grief. And that's why you call the a funeral director because he's there to deal with a lot of, lot of legal matters that the family is not aware of. When a person dies--. Let me give you an example. When a person dies, there are, you're under three different types of laws. You are under law when you're living and doing well in good health, that's one set of laws. You're under another set of laws when you are sick and you become unincompetent to think for yourself. But when one dies you're under, you're under la--, a different set of laws altogether. If you own property, it's called estate. Your house, your will, it has to be, it has to be probate. You've got to go (by the) state law. If a person dies and they have children under age eighteen, they qualify for Social Security. The funeral director is there to help that person get Social Security. If it's a, if it's a widow and her hus--, her husband get the same check on his Social Security, her check will increase. So there are so many other areas other than just burying the dead. When a person dies, your whole lifestyle changes. It depends on how close that person is to you.
LG: So can you tell me outside of a florist and funeral services what other types of services can be made available to the public from Beasley's Funeral Home?
OB: Well, we're the only black funeral home in Charlotte we own our own cemetery. And we can give a person a package deal that others can't give. Sometimes we have to give a person a grave, and sometimes, and most know that we sell graves half price. There are a lot of services that we, even after the family pays us, there are a lot of services that we give that other may or may not give. Let me give you an example. Here's a person who dies and loses a father. He dies and the, and the widow pays the funeral director. But she's still lost, but she needs some guidance if she has--, if she is entitled to, if her husband was a veteran there's a VA check that in sixty to ninety days she should be receiving. We give her that instruction. If it's a Social Security check we give them that instruction, because we help, help them try to get it straightened out. If there's a will that needs to be probated and go through the courts, we try the system and get that part straightened out. So there's a lot of other areas left after the funeral director is paid, a lot of area that needs to be tied together, so we try to get involved in those areas.
LG: What would you have to do in order to get a job at Beasley's Funeral Home?
OB: Depend upon what type of job a person is looking for and the job that we need filled at the time. If a person is looking for a certain type of job and we have an opening he fills out an application. We take a look at the application, we get some references, and we follow through.
LG: So you would notify that person by phone or by mail that they have the job?
OB: Oh, most definitely. Most definitely.
LG: You were talking about scholarships, or something of the sort. A scholarship?
OB: I think what I was saying earlier in reference to scholarships is that young people need to get involved in the funeral business. Very few people think in terms of going into the funeral business. Most of the time, funeral businesses is passed from one generation to another. If your mother and father is not already involved in a funeral business, very few funeral directors and ( ) will be calling outsiders to get involved in the funeral business. Only thing I'm saying is that sometime during career days, also sometime during the times of schools in our precinct, people needs to be told, young people, who are not involved in the funeral business, need to be told that, that funeral business is to their exposure as it is to anybody else. They need to come to the funeral home, get information and to find out where their options are. How can they, one day become associated with the funeral home.
LG: So you would, you think that it's best for the funeral business to stay within the family?
OB: No ma'am. I think what, I think that the Lord gives all of us a gift and whatever gift the good Lord gives you, if you never been in the funeral business in your life, then I think you ought to see the job on a funeral. Washing cars, dusting, cleaning up, (drive), being a receptionist. You've got to start somewhere. I don't think--. No business should be confined just to a family.
LG: Oh boy. I mean being around you show me that, sometimes you have to stay over at the funeral home, and you have living quarters here. Does that frighten you? Do you--? Are you frightened to stay here being around the deceased so much? Does that bother you at any time?
OB: No, but the law is as long as you have a body in a funeral home, somebody must be there at all time. Hypothetically if the funeral home catch a fire three o'clock in the morning, the first thing you get out of the funeral home is you moves the body that's dead. Because the family who called you and trusted their loved one into your care, and you're responsible for that body until you put it in the ground.
LG: So you have, someone has to be at the funeral home--.
OB: Twenty-four hours a day.
LG: Twenty-four hours a day?
OB: So you have to provide somewhere for them to sleep.
LG: So you have to--. So that it doesn't always, it isn't always you that's stays?
OB: No, no, no, no. No, no. No, no.
LG: And you, you have to be responsible for that body until it is buried.
OB: Yes ma'am.
LG: So the first priority is the deceased?
OB: The deceased. If the building catches fire you call the police department, if you think that that's is going to endanger the body, you gets the body out first. If no furniture comes out, you take the body out and go, because the family call you and they entrusted the body into your care and you're responsible for it.
LG: And then everything else is secondary.
OB: Secondary.
LG: Furniture.
OB: You can replace furniture, but you can't replace the body.
LG: How, what is the process after the embalming? How long can you preserve a body?
OB: For years.
LG: Without it being entombed or in the ground?
OB: Oh yes. You could just continue to go back and re-embalm it.
LG: Oh, so you have to keep embalming it after a certain amount of time?
OB: Oh yes.
LG: Do you know what the embalming process is?
OB: I'm not a licensed embalmer, and I wouldn't go, I wouldn't go into that.
LG: Oh, so they have to do a certain process after a certain amount of time? They have to redo it over and over. What would happen if you had, have to do a service for a person whose body has been in bad, you know, they had been in a bad accident or something their face is like in bad condition.
OB: They call that restorative art. That's what a funeral director, that's where a mortician comes in. That's why they go to school.
LG: Oh so, the person--. They, if it's not that bad, they can restore the person's face.
OB: Oh yes. No problem.
LG: But if the body is like, very, very damaged do they open the casket or close the casket?
OB: Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes--.
LG: Or is that up to the discretion of the family?
OB: It's always up to the discretion of the family, but usually sometime a body is torn beyond recognition. In a case like that then you have a closed casket. But most time with a just ordinary wreck, a good embalmer-and we have plenty of them here in Charlotte-and good embalmer have no problem.
LG: So when you go and pick the bodies up from the hospital, you bring them here. Do you dress them and do their hair and everything?
OB: We do, we do, we do, everything here.
LG: So a person could buy a suit or a dress for their deceased family member here for them to wear?
OB: They can buy one here or they can bring, bring their clothes from home and we use them, either one.
LG: Oh, so you can bring something that you remember most of that person wearing and like the most for them to wear or you could purchase something from here?
OB: That's correct.
LG: Is it a full outfit or is it just partial?
OB: No, it's full. It's full.
LG: Well, I thank you for your time and the tour of your building and everything,. It was really nice. And if you have anything that you would like to add or say, you know, you can do it now.
OB: Thank you very kindly. I appreciate the interview, and I wish you well in your endeavor. Congratulations in order. Nice meeting you. If I can be of further service in the future, give us a call.
LG: All right, thank you.