Funeral home offers itself as crossing racial lines

IF YOU GOWhat: New funeral home grand openingWhen: Oct. 21, 2 to 5 p.m.Where: 1724 McCallie Ave., Advantage Funeral HomeWhy: Refreshments, door prizes provided, Tours availableContact: 423-265-4414Source: Advantage Funeral & Cremation Service

Black and white Americans have settled many of their differences of late, but they still generally prefer to keep things separate but equal when it comes to worship and death.

Funerals in particular are especially segregated, allowing mourners to stay in their comfort zone as they grieve for lost loved ones.

The way it plays out, white funeral homes serve whites, black funeral homes attract blacks, while Hispanic or Jewish funeral homes handle their respective peoples, funeral officials say.

"In the South, it's still old-school," said Bradley Smith, funeral director for Advantage Funeral Home and Cremation Service. "Even the cemeteries are segregated."

But Smith, who is white, and co-director Nate Pinkard, who is black, say they're breaking the mold.

"They did what nobody ever said could be done; they made a black and white funeral home," said Wilbert McClure, another Advantage funeral director, who is black.

The expected racial tension arising from having a white service next to a black one has failed to materialize, Pinkard said.

"We can have a visitation going on with one race, and a service going on with another race, and they'll co-mingle together," he said.

Advantage ups the ante by offering a special room for Jewish chevra kadishas, where volunteers can cleanse the deceased using ancient pre-burial rituals.

Though it may seem perfectly normal for different racial groups to spend time with each other in the real world, as they do at the supermarket, the bank, and at work, full integration in the funeral business is still unusual except in rural areas, said Ed English, managing partner at Lane Funeral Home.

"Traditionally there has been segregation. Why that is, I'm not sure," English said. "It's probably somewhat less than in years past, but still it's predominant."

John Taylor, whose family owns Taylor funeral homes, said segregation at death is "pretty much the norm in this community, and nationwide."

Cause and effect

Taylor and others believe racial division in an age of racial tolerance is because of family traditions going back several generations.

"They may know your family or your grandfather," he said. "It's just a custom that you don't think about."

On the other hand, the bad economy and increasingly integrated churches may be leading toward racial reconciliation, said Gene Pike, president of Chattanooga Funeral Home.

"I go to Ridgedale Baptist church, and there are black people there, so people will ask me to bury them," said Pike, who is white. "I think that it's getting more integrated, and we see price as a factor."

That's one of the selling points at Advantage, billed on its website as an "affordable, economical alternative to traditional funeral homes."

"They come in here with $5,000, we're gonna have a funeral," Smith said. "If they come in with $500, we're gonna have a funeral."

Smith and Pinkard each formerly worked at smaller, niche funeral homes before moving into a 15,000-square-foot former grocery store on McCallie Avenue, and doubling their capacity in the $1 million building built on the site of what was once the Franklin-Strickland Funeral Home.

The economies of scale inherent in growing their 12-employee business have helped them become more profitable and serve more customers, even though they say their prices are extremely affordable, they say.

"The way the economy is now, people are trying to feed their families," Pinkard said.

The desire for less-expensive funerals seems to cut across racial and demographic lines, he said, pointing to 40 percent growth from 2010, as the partners have served more than 200 families .

Advantage is so affordable, they even help the city bury the homeless, Smith said.

"It doesn't matter if you're poor or rich or white or black," Smith said. That's what makes us unique; we can bury anybody."