Ozella Foster Robinson

Throughout the week of August 1-6, the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association’s Annual Convention will meet in St. Louis, and the local state association membership will give convention participants the thrill of their lives.

We will begin Sunday, August 2 with worship at the Central Baptist Church and a "Stop the Violence Rally and Street Hearse/Motorcycles Parade."

The morning opening day session on Monday, August 3 will feature St. Louis-born Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

On Tuesday night, August 4, our young colleague William C. Harris Jr. will be presented the Professional of the Year Award.

Wednesday night, August 5, is our grand finale. It will be a historical event program. The National Political Action Committee of the association will feature yet another of our native powerhouse guest speakers, Congressman Wm. Lacy Clay.

On that evening, we also will pay special tribute to a select group pioneers, legendary trailblazers and centurion (100 years) marquee funeral directors and embalmers.

The Special Appreciation Award will go to George Carper II for being there for many of the funeral businesses when their money was not there. Mr. Carper, the nearly 100-year-old African-American marquee local casket businessman, was there for the people and funeral home owners. He was there to save the service for the funeral home by the "hand shake of good faith” concept. He gave his caskets and other funeral merchandise, and then waited on his money until a later date. We must say thanks in a huge, public way.

St. Louis has always been in the thick of the funeral service profession, primarily because of our will to serve our black families. Back in the day, black funeral home owners were men and women who learned to operate their business on the hand shake of faith. That hand shake of faith method allowed for the funeral director to become what one would call today to be “the man.”

The corner funeral home was the place of helping the bereaved to regain their inner composure after the loss of a loved one. The funeral was done in a funeral home, mostly, instead of the church.

Just the title of being funeral home owner commanded the upmost respect. Their dress was so unique. The late Marion E. Officer Sr. was the epitome of the well-suited funeral director of all times. Many have attempted to mimic his style, but it will never be.

In the mid-‘60s, Fulton E. Culkins of Ellis Funeral Homes was the first African American appointed to the Missouri State Board of Embalmers. In those days a black face on the state level was nearly unheard of. His glowing, light – nearly white – skin was the driving force for many doors to be opened for black funeral business men and women then and today.

He was accepted in the Caucasian arena a lot easier than most. Consequently, he was able to create pathways to the top for many young funeral directors, like Theodore” Ted” Foster Sr. and Charles Woodcox. Fulton Culkins’ demeanor commanded much respect from his peers, and together they nurtured the relationships that the funeral directors developed by going to meetings at each other’s facilities.

Ted Foster was literally the legacy of Fulton Culkins, beginning at the death Mrs. Nellie Mae Foster, his mother. Fulton put the remains of Mrs. Foster on the same train with Ted and sent them both back to August, Arkansas for the service. Once he saw that Ted Foster had the makings of a good funeral director, the rest was history. Ted Foster went on to become the city household name as the owner of Ted Foster and Sons Funeral Homes, Inc.

G Wade Granberry was another forceful legendary funeral director that made outstanding funeral service men and women into committed funeral home owners today. That includes Beverly, Janet, Cecil and Harold of Granberry Mortuary and TT Yandel of Webster Groves.

Austin A. Layne Jr. received his beginning under G Wade Granberry. Layne never forgets to make it known that Granberry is still his mentor today.

The pioneers of yesterday were not selfish business people when it came to educating the St. Louis funeral directors or embalmers of their era. Many St. Louis funeral directors were blessed to have several iconic owners to guide them in the right direction early in their young careers, like Ronald L. Jones (who began under Birdie Beal) and Archbishop Michael A. West Sr. Bishop West, who had the privilege to be taught by Birdie Beal and G Wade Granberry.

Many of these extraordinary, legendary funeral directors were educated without the likes of an organized school of mortuary science, although all of the existing professionals did become licensed by state requirements.

Some directors were perfectionist in the craft, such as John Cunningham, the husband of the late Nettie Cunningham and father of Susie M Cunningham of S M Cunningham Funeral Home. Some say that John was born with the God-given talent to be greatest restorative artist in the embalming profession.

Today the new generation of funeral services providers are dictated by unnecessary requirements, organized politically board members, and unproven and complicated written school books. No more good, old hand-shaking days.

Ozella J. Foster is owner of Ozella J. Foster Funeral Service, 3619 Finney Ave. Lois Iverson and Rev. Theodore "Ted" Foster Sr. furnished historical materials.

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