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A grave business.

Race, Religion And Social Stature Naturally Divide The Funeral Home Business, Making Expansion Difficult

The matter of choosing a funeral home isn't as simple as looking through the telephone book, calling around for prices and making a choice. There is a natural societal structure within the funeral home business.

Although the industry is changing as large corporations begin to buy funeral homes nationwide, the varying echelons within the business in central Arkansas are still apparent.

And as much as funeral directors say they like to serve everyone, they realize the framework that exists.

Race, religion and class naturally divide the business.

"Unfortunately, there is still segregation with funeral services," says Tom Wittenberg, who is president of the 91-year-old Ruebel Funeral Home in Little Rock. "We have that stigma of being the country club funeral home.

"It's a misconception that you can't come to this funeral home unless you have a lot of money.

"... I don't know that I'm trying to get away from being the country club funeral home, but I'm trying to attract a broader ... group."

The funeral home business is hardly as recession-proof as it seems.

"|People~ do not spend as much money, but they still have a death," says Harry Leggett of Griffin Leggett Healey & Roth Funeral Home in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Hot Springs.

That's why funeral homes are trying to attract as many customers as they can.

When people aren't paying as much per funeral, the volume of business must increase.

But some funeral directors are finding it difficult to break into new markets.

"It's not because we don't want to," says Wittenberg.

And Leggett says, "Funeral homes don't discriminate. I'm in business to do funerals."

Still, funeral home directors sometimes don't have a choice in their clientele.

"A funeral home is kind of like a church," says Dillard Martin of the Little Rock-based Roller-Drummond Funeral Home, which has 17 area locations. "It's hard for someone else to take this family from our funeral home."

Martin says people have a "this is my funeral home" mentality.

Although Martin and other funeral home directors like to say they serve a cross section of religions and social classes, everyone admits funeral homes are divided by race.

"If you can't integrate a church, Lord help the rest of the businesses," says black funeral home director Will Acklin.

His namesake funeral home based in Little Rock does the largest volume of business in the black community, according to research by funeral directors surveying daily newspaper obituaries.

"It's just like anything else -- attitude," says Acklin. "You go where you're comfortable -- where you've historically gone."

The History Of It

Harry Leggett remembers when his father started in the funeral home business in Little Rock in 1935. His family lived with Paul Griffin's family in the funeral home.

Despite the Great Depression, overhead was low.

It didn't take too much for Griffin Leggett to make a profit.

Sometimes chickens or eggs were accepted as payment for funeral services. Young Harry ended up with a pet goat after one funeral.

Griffin Leggett has grown dramatically since then. It merged with Healey and Roth Funeral Home in 1974 and is now doing almost as much volume as all the other white funeral homes put together.

However, its success remains rooted firmly in its humble beginnings.

For instance, these days Griffin Leggett does the majority of Catholic funerals in central Arkansas along with more than 95 percent of the Jewish ones.


Back in the 1930s, it was known that some of the funeral homes in town had ties to the Ku Klux Klan while Harry Leggett Sr. did not.

The KKK affiliations no longer exist. But the Catholic and Jewish business has stayed with Griffin Leggett since it was established there.

Daily newspaper obituary surveys reveal that Griffin Leggett has almost 45 percent of the white business in Little Rock and North Little Rock. It has almost 40 percent of the white business in Hot Springs.

Griffin Leggett serves more than 1,300 people a year, with 1,000 of those purchasing full-service funerals.

But Leggett says he does not count sheer numbers. Instead, he looks at how many times a family calls him. To this end, he uses several public relations tools.

Like other funeral homes in the area, Griffin Leggett often doesn't charge for infant funerals. Through that goodwill gesture, Leggett hopes the family will call on his funeral home the next time they have a need.

Similarly, Leggett provides about 100 adult funerals a year at no charge.

Behind The Business

"I don't know what he's doing, but he's doing something right," says Leggett of his counterpart in the black community.

Will Acklin has only been in business since 1983, but he already has 45.1 percent of the black funeral service market.

"I called and told him I was glad he isn't my competitor," says Leggett.

Acklin was the director of employee benefits at Alltel Corp. when, he says, "I saw a need in the black community for funeral service."

When Acklin's grandmother died in 1978, he was dissatisfied with how the funeral home handled her service. He told the funeral director that, if he had a funeral home, he would treat families better than he had been treated.

At the time, Acklin had no intentions of going into the business. However, like many funeral directors, he says he then felt called into it.

No one would give Acklin a loan, so he took $3,000 of his own money and started with a small location in North Little Rock. He went on to purchase one in Little Rock and eventually built a new funeral home there.

Acklin says he didn't have the facilities to cater to the elite when he first started, so he basically served what he calls the common person.

Today, with arguably the most impressive black funeral home in town, Acklin is serving a cross section of people that includes the wealthy.

"We're the Wal-Mart," Acklin says of his business within the black funeral home industry. "We serve everybody."

Miller Elston Mortuary Inc., Ruffin & Jarrett Funeral Home and Dubisson Undertaking Co. have traditionally jockeyed for position as the premier black funeral home in central Arkansas.

With Acklin in business, there isn't much jockeying for No. 1 anymore.

"You had people in business but not business people in business," says Acklin.

Despite his quick success, Acklin is not satisfied with his 45 percent share of the market.

"That tells me there's another |55 percent~ we don't have," he says.

A Difference In Perspective

Bigger isn't necessarily best in the funeral home business, according to some funeral home directors.

"Acklin has bought so much," says Osborne Gillespie of Gillespie Brothers Funeral Home Inc. "He's got to get out there and keep pushing.

"If I wanted to, I could get out there and make a lot of money ... |But~ we can keep the doors open with just the insurance."

Along with burial insurance sales, Gillespie says he only does about 30 funerals a year at an average price of $950 for the services. That compares to the average of $850 Acklin says he charges for basic services.

Gillespie operates out of a house on Arch Street in downtown Little Rock.

He owns the house and has relatives living upstairs. The downstairs chapel area currently doubles as a casket room when there are no funeral services.

It's not fancy, but it's making Gillespie money.

Similarly, although Ruebel Funeral Home is one of the best known in Little Rock, it only has 250 full-service funerals a year compared to Griffin Leggett's 1,000.

Wittenberg says he does not pay much attention to what the other funeral homes are doing as long as his is successful.

"Don't get me wrong," he adds. "Drummond building out on Chenal -- that makes my wheels turn."

Roller-Drummond is building a new 22,800-SF location on Chenal Parkway in west Little Rock. That compares to Griffin Leggett's 23,000 SF and Acklin's 12,500 SF.

Other funeral home owners also are contemplating a move west. Leggett says he'll sooner move to southwest Little Rock -- probably in the next five years -- than go all the way to west Little Rock.

"That's still a little west of, let's call it, the dying population," says Leggett of the younger families who inhabit west Little Rock.

Martin says Roller-Drummond's move west eventually may eliminate the need for the funeral home's current base near Arkansas Children's Hospital.

Wittenberg plans to keep Ruebel's main funeral home across from Park Plaza even when he opens new locations.

"It's almost like branch banking," says Wittenberg. "We need to be available, but it doesn't mean we have to build the whole bank over again."


While other funeral home directors are looking to economically expand their businesses, Jim Huson at Huson Funeral Homes Inc. in North Little Rock wants to be "the affordable" funeral home.

From his office that doubles as an arrangement room -- most funeral home directors have offices separate from where customers actually make funeral arrangements -- Huson explains that he does everything he can to save his customers money.

"Every competitor in Pulaski County has an excellent reputation," says Huson. "It's just that we have TABULAR DATA OMITTED found a niche where we can compete and they can't.

"How do you go back and start reducing prices after you've charged these prices? ... There's no reason to. There's enough business around here for everyone."

Huson has been in the market for nine years. He claims to undercut everyone in town.

"He advertises he is, but there's not a damn difference," says Leggett.

Most funeral home directors say they can make a funeral as inexpensive as a customer wants or needs.

Huson disagrees.

"We're less," he says. "They don't like it, but we are."


Although changes in the funeral home business generally go unnoticed by the average person, the industry has evolved in several ways.

People are no longer buried. They're interred.

The dead aren't carried in a hearse but in a funeral coach.

And the negative associations with the word "undertaker" are eliminated through the title "funeral director."

The changes aren't just superficial. The way in which funeral homes attract customers has developed, too.

"You don't want my product," Leggett says.

And that makes advertising tough for funeral homes.

"You can easily be offensive," says Leggett, whose father broke an unwritten rule in the business and began advertising in the 1930s. It allowed him to reach many more people than his competitors, which Leggett says helped lead to the funeral home's success today.

Wittenberg recently taped four 15-second television commercials that, he says, "I don't think any other funeral home would do."

For instance, in one spot, he says, "Your children are a part of their grandmother's life. Don't exclude them from her funeral service."

Leggett chooses another approach in which he uses print ads featuring pictures of his employees and their families.

"People go to a funeral home because 'I know somebody there,' " says Leggett.

In Arkansas, it's fairly easy to get to know funeral home owners, most of whom are in the business through family ties.

"Funeral services are one of the last 'ma and pa' establishments," Wittenberg says.

Although the threat of big corporations moving in is real, Huson says there will always be a need for a family operated funeral home.

And probably more than one.

Corporate threat or not, the strong distinctions that exist between funeral homes should keep the business in central Arkansas alive and well.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:segregation in funeral home business
Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Industry Overview
Date:Oct 12, 1992
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