If you travel across the country, as Bryan Foster did during his 20-year career in the Army, you might notice one particular business in just about every city and town in the South.
“I don’t care how small that town is — they have an African-American funeral director or funeral home to service the people there (and) to have their culture expressed in funeral services,” Foster said.
Until recently, though, that wasn’t the case in Madison, which didn’t have any black-owned funeral homes or black morticians.
So when he retired from the military, Foster — who grew up playing mortician the way other kids played mailman and was nicknamed “Undertaker” because he worked an after-school job at a funeral home as a teen — set out to change that.
“As I talked to the many pastors here and community members here, they were saying, ‘There’s no culturally diverse funeral home,’ ” Foster said. “That’s when the calling really came back.”
He opened Foster Funeral and Cremation Service in February out of a one-story brick building on Luann Lane on the city’s South Side. Many say it’s the first black-owned funeral home in Madison’s history.
It’s a quiet and inviting space, where upbeat gospel music plays from the speakers in a 130-seat chapel, with a casket draped in silk flowers at the front of the room. A wood engraving of the Lord’s Prayer and a podium are to the right of the casket; to the left is Foster’s office and a closet with his Army dress blues, which he wears for military services.
For many black families, the desire to have their loved one’s body handled by a black mortician can be as much a practical matter as it is a cultural one, said David Smith, a pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church and chaplain at Foster’s funeral home.
“The biggest need was, I think, cultural awareness and sensitivity when it came to preparation of the body,” Smith said. That includes concerns such as having makeup artists and barbers who know how to treat black skin and hair, he said.
Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, a predominantly black trade group based in Georgia, said there’s a long history of black funeral homes. In the South many businesses emerged soon after the end of slavery, when racial and cultural segregation meant white morticians handled white bodies and black morticians handled black ones.
From those beginnings, though, black funeral homes emerged to take a major role in communities while also giving black entrepreneurs a chance to own their own businesses, Williams said.
“Funeral directors were the bail bondsmen, they were the loan officers, they were the ambulance that carried the mother to the hospital,” Williams said. “They show leadership within the community. They have respect.”
Smith said he hopes Foster’s funeral home is an inspiration that spurs more black-owned businesses in Madison.
“I think Bryan is going to be a very positive role model to those who have hopes and dreams of owning their own business,” Smith said.
Today, it remains “the norm” in many parts of the country that white and black families tend to visit funeral homes owned by people of the same race, Williams said. But she encourages homes to welcome everyone — something Foster is trying to do with his business.
“When you can open up a funeral home and be multicultural, that’s the best way you can be,” Williams said. “In today’s society you should not have an African-American funeral home that only serves African-Americans. It should be a multicultural funeral home.”
That’s particularly important for Foster, whose business sits in what is often called the most diverse ZIP code in Wisconsin.
So along with Smith and Dawn Adams, an apprentice Foster said is working toward becoming the city’s first female black funeral director, the home works with coordinators who help plan services for Latino and Hmong families.
Nhia Lee, a translator and Foster’s Hmong funeral coordinator, said families often had a difficult time finding a home that could accommodate traditional Hmong funerals, which can stretch across two or three days and often involve large groups of friends and family members. If a home would have them, Lee said, families might also struggle to pay for such a lengthy funeral.
“For the longest time, just finding a place to do the ceremony is very stressful,” he said. “On top of that ... it’s very expensive.”
But Foster has sought to make his home welcoming and affordable for Hmong families, even working with the Now Faith Ministries International church across the street if they need space to hold larger gatherings. It makes a big difference for families who have enough to worry about after losing a loved one, Lee said.
“Everybody is so grateful for what Bryan is doing,” Lee said. “It will make things go smoother for them.”
“I think Bryan is going to be a very positive role model to those who have hopes and dreams of owning their own business.” — DAVID SMITH, pastor,
Faith Community Baptist Church