Since Hartwell Ragsdale opened Anderson-Ragsdale Mortuary in 1956, he has prepared an average of 300 San Diegans for burial each year, 8400 bodies, almost all of them black. “Some streets I drive down, I see one house after another I’ve been in,” fifty-six-year-old Ragsdale says, shaking his head, appearing to see them again in his mind’s eye: the houses, the faces, their families. “Death,” he says, and lets the word hang, “is sure . . . common. People are dying as fast as they’re born.” It is a matter-of-fact statement, devoid of sentiment, and Ragsdale’s eyes only reflect wonder as he says it.
The funeral director, or mortician, or undertaker, is, with the used-car salesman, white America’s most mistrusted businessman. But the black undertaker, together with the black schoolteacher and minister, has traditionally been looked up to, even admired, in the black community.
The place of the funeral in black life and the role of the black undertaker in his community are at such variance with the practice and attitudes of the rest of the nation that when Jessica Mitford wrote her funeral industry expose, The American Way of Death, she decided not to include black mortuaries. “It would have been an entirely different book,” she says.
“I’ll go to the cemeteries,” Ragsdale continues, “and off in the distance I’ll see a funeral for white persons. There will be two or three cars, seven or eight people. That would never happen to a black person. If he has any connections with anything, there will be fifty people at the graveside, and that’s small.”
In the Southeast community, Ragsdale says that in a few short hours, by word of mouth, people will know that someone has died. In families, as soon as word comes that a family member has passed, or “passed over,” cousins, sisters and brothers, aunts, grandparents, even in-laws will gather. Ragsdale often “holds a body,” he says, for five or six days to allow a family time to come together. Friends will take time to visit the family, to go by the funeral home (where there will often be a wake on the night before the funeral service), and everyone will take off work, if necessary, to attend the final services.
The Reverend George Walker Smith, former president of the San Diego City School Board and an old friend of Ragsdale, points out that death is often the only event that brings a fragmented black family together. “We use it somewhat as a reunion. We mourn together, we pray together, and afterward there is always a big feast, what I call a joyous celebration of the home-going of the deceased person. Even among the more educated black folk, this tradition has hung on.”
A funeral arranged by a black family shows ail the variety wrought by geography, religious denomination, socioeconomic class', and family background. But the funeral service itself, whether held in a church sanctuary or Ragsdale’s 200-seat mortuary chapel, will almost always be an occasion of communal jubilation rising out of personal grief, with hymns buoyantly sung, triumphantly shouted, and loud. In George Walker Smith’s Golden Hill Presbyterian Church, he discourages emotionalism and encourages a closed coffin, he says. There the service, following the standard Presbyterian order of worship, will be calm and even subdued. In other Protestant but more Pentecostally inclined churches, men and women clap, sway, trace out with their feet what on the streets is called a “blues shuffle. “ Individual voices build an increasingly complex harmony on hymn and gospel tunes, inviting in the Spirit to move among them. Such a service may culminate in a frenzied Pentecostal prairie fire, with participants collapsing, speaking in tongues, praising, confessing, testifying, remembering the deceased aloud, even speaking out about their own future deaths.
Sitting behind his desk in the office of the mortuary he built eight years ago at Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue, Ragsdale explains, “We believe in paying respect to our dead. Our philosophical and religious belief is that you go to heaven when you die. A funeral service is a farewell party to our friend or family member. It is an important part of our end of life, and it is very rare that we don’t have a crowd. As often as once a month we will have a funeral with 1000 people there. Death has always been an important part of black life ... not birth.”
Ragsdale’s office has a couch, easy chairs, and Ragsdale’s wide desk, which, with its stacked papers and typewriter, is more a working, than an executive.desk. From the office, even with the heavy door closed, it is possible to hear the telephone’s frequent ringing in the reception area, and the quiet, polite manner in which it is answered by one of the mortuary receptionists. It is also possible to hear mourners speaking softly to the receptionist, possible to hear her high heels click on the floor and then only her lilting speech and monosyllabic responses as she leads mourners onto carpet, down the hallway to one of the viewing rooms. There, from behind the solid-core door where a family and friends sit with the embalmed, dressed, and casketed body, sobs echo against the hallway walls and the scent is of florists’ carnations warming up in a warm room.
It is a recent late afternoon and Ragsdale is weary. One of the last San Diego mortuary owners who does his own embalming (only thirty-eight percent of mortuary owners nationwide still perform the embalming chores, he says), he was up late the night before, preparing the body of a man who turned a gun on himself. “We had two suicides recently,’’ Ragsdale says, his broad face reflecting puzzlement. “One gentleman had been out of work and the other had woman trouble.” The latest suicide victim was in such bad shape that Ragsdale advised the family not to show the body. But he knew they wanted to open the casket for viewing. “Anybody that dies, somebody cares,” Ragsdale says, explaining that he worked through the night to reconstruct the shattered features of the man’s face. Wincing, he adds, “I had to build him a new nose.”
Ragsdale is stocky, well built, a man who likes his food and eats well. This afternoon he wears a plaid sports jacket and not the dour black expected of an undertaker. (Although for services, he explains, he will wear the traditional black or dark gray.) His expression is not mournful nor is his manner unctuous. He does not say “cremains” for “ashes” or “dear departed” for “corpse,” and he will make clear he finds mortuary euphemisms distasteful. He does not bristle at “undertaker,” and he talks plainly about the economics of the mortuary. He points out that Anderson-Ragsdale offers what may be the least expensive funeral, with embalming, of any San Diego mortuary ($850), but he is careful, he says, to make sure that a family can afford the funeral it chooses, if for no other reason than that he needs to be paid. He adds, “Encouraging families to overspend is bad business as well as bad ethics.” It is bad business because the mortuary is left with an unpaid debt on its services rendered and a residue of ill will in the family one has to dun to pay its bill. In some cases, Ragsdale says he will “throw in something free” rather than have a family accrue a larger debt than they can pay. If another family member should die and the Anderson-Ragsdale Mortuary bill is still reading past due, the family will most likely seek out another mortuary. The black mortuary business is built on the individual, Ragsdale says. “I have to live in a way so as not to bring shame or scandal on the name. I don’t want anyone to be able to say to my son, ‘Your daddy was a scandal. He got me to overspend.’ ”
Ragsdale cannot recall the first time he saw a body. Both his father and grandfather were undertakers, as are his brother, uncles, and cousins. He, his brother Lincoln Ragsdale, his mother and father, lived in the other' half of his father’s Ardmore, Oklahoma mortuary, while Ragsdale was growing up. (When Ragsdale moved to San Diego, his own two children grew up in the second-story apartment above the Imperial Avenue mortuary that was his original place of business.)
He does remember that in Ardmore, when he was sixteen, he did get quite a scare the first time he went alone to pick up a body. “A fellow and his wife had separated. He had come up to her door and knocked, and when she answered, he blew part of her face off and then he went off in the weeds and shot himself.
“The police were there when I arrived. It was summer and the Johnson grass had gotten up pretty high. You couldn’t see the man. The police told me to go out in the grass and pick him up. I was as scared as I could be. I crawled up on the man. He was in a sitting position in the grass. He had taken his shoe off and with the shotgun under his chin, he had put his little toe into the trigger. When I got right up on him, his eyes were wide open and I thought he was looking right at me. I got up and ran.”
Working with a corpse, he says, doesn’t bother him; he’s grown up around it. But he adds that it has never become just another routine. “If it gets that common to you, you should leave it. Any family that gives me the privilege of treating their dead, I treat it as if it was my own relative. I respect the body. In the mortuary I put my own laws on. The body is never left nude. The reproductive organs are always covered. I don’t allow joking around, no carelessness, no dropping the body. I know they can’t feel it, but I don’t want it that way.”
Ragsdale began embalming when he was sixteen, and he explains the process (for which he charges $150) in a manner as straightforward as a librarian will use to tell you how to check out a book. The body is washed and its orifices sprayed with disinfectant. An incision is made in a vein to empty the body of blood. (The blood goes directly into a holding tank to be disinfected, then into the sewer system). An arterial incision is made to refill the body with embalming fluid. The latter replaces, ounce for ounce, the body fluids that have been removed. This fluid contains formaldehyde, glycerin, borax, phenol, and alcohol, and is dissolved in tap water. Colorants and emollients can be added to restore skin color and to improve skin texture. “Embalming fluid manufacturers have become very scientific, very technical. Now each company has its secrets and its various brands," Ragsdale says, laughing, “just like Rinso and Duz.”
After transfusion is complete, aspiration begins. A trocar, a hollow needle to which a tube is attached, is used to puncture the abdominal and chest cavities. Fluids are removed and replaced from and in these areas. The removal of body fluids and their replacement with embalming solutions is done with an electric pump. Ragsdale’s grandfather and father used a hand pump to embalm. The electric pump, which Ragsdale rates as faster and cleaner, was not available until the late 1930s. “Like any change, it was resisted,” Ragsdale says. “My father wanted one, but they cost $200, and it was either buy a pump or a car, and he bought the car. It was 1940 before he bought his first electric pump.” Ragsdale explains that embalming and aspiration retard decomposition. “I have held a body as long as six months here in San Diego,” he says, “and once in Phoenix [where Ragsdale and his brother Lincoln opened the mortuary still owned by Lincoln] for two years we held a body until it could be identified.”
Corpses arrive in varying conditions: decomposed, burned, autopsied, dehydrated by a long illness, drowned. An autopsied corpse may have to be repacked and reshaped. With some illnesses, the body deteriorates terribly; eyes, hands, lips, eyebrows, may have to be replaced. Sutures and stitches are covered. Hair is replaced or thickened. Sunken cheeks are filled. The last steps in the embalming room are cosmetic, and it is his ability to restore and cosmeticize a corpse, a process that takes a sculptor’s skill and a portrait artist’s eye, that pleases Ragsdale as much as anything he does.
There are two colleges of mortuary science in California, one in San Francisco, from which Ragsdale graduated in 1948, and another in the Orange County community of Cypress, from which his thirty-one-year-old son Hartwell III (known as “Skipper”) graduated last year. Both offer two-year courses in funeral service, including classes in anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and restoration. But it takes longer than two years’ study, Ragsdale stresses, to become truly skilled at restoration. “I can make a person look like they did in health,” Ragsdale says, “building the tissues back up, getting the color back in. And I know it helps families; it helps them to accept that death has occurred. And if six months later a family still has not faced that fact, you have not done your job.”
Ragsdale takes great care in the final dressing of the corpse, even to a detail as small as perhaps tucking a lace hanky into folded hands. In the casket sales room, an area the size of a large living room or four-car garage, a room that is spectrally quiet and through which air circulates coolly, Ragsdale not only shows a family the caskets available but the garments in which the deceased can be shown and interred. “Usually, after a long illness,” he says, “the old clothes don’t fit.” Rather than go out to a store to buy something new, Ragsdale suggests that the family buy a garment, almost always for women, made especially for the funeral industry. Not only are these “burial clothes” usually less expensive (with fifty and sixty dollars as the top price), but they are manufactured with slits down the back to ease in fitting of the corpse.
Ragsdale slides back the glass doors in the casket sales room that cover the interiorly lit clothes closet. On hangers, brushing against one another, are pastel blues, pinks, lavenders, yellows, pale ivories — long dresses that will lie across ankles, and short boxy bed jackets with Schiffli-embroidered flowers, gathered with soft lace high at the neck and at the cuffs. Ragsdale carefully takes several garments out from the closet. The high necks and long sleeves, he says, are rarely found in commercial clothing stores and “are designed to hide the throat wasted by disease and arms that have thinned out.” He encourages families to match the dress of the deceased with the interior of the coffin, so that, for instance, a pale-pink dress might be chosen to complement a casket trimmed in pink rosebuds. He takes out a simple Victorian-collared, lace-frosted dress and holds it up; this one has been very popular lately, he says. The air-conditioned breeze moves the skirt ever so slightly. When Ragsdale returns the garment to its place in the closet, brushing the skirt down between companion skirts, the sound of fabric rustling in the quiet room is suddenly as loud and grating as a chain saw in a suburban back yard.
After a funeral, Ragsdale makes at least one home call. If he feels concerned about a family, he may go back a second, even a third or fourth time. “You go by, you see how they’re doing,” he says. This is one of the many aspects of a family business that Ragsdale says he learned from his father. “And my father,” he points out, “learned it from his father.” It is a theme he iterates, again and again — that the funeral business in the black community is a family business, that he learned, almost absorbed, from his father. George Walker Smith, talking about Ragsdale, says, “There is not one person in the Southeast community who puts as much back into the community in time and money as he does. And there is no one in this entire community, black or white, whose business ethics are any better. He learned this,” Smith says in a voice firm with conviction, “from his father.”
Ragsdale’s grandfather, William Ragsdale, was born in Magnolia, Arkansas in 1849. In the late 1890s his wife’s brother, a U.S. Marshal, was living in Indian Territory, which would enter the Union as Oklahoma in 1907. “But in those days it was under federal law, and run mostly by the Indians,” Ragsdale says. “They had freedom there for black people, and my grandfather’s brother-in-law told him to come over into that area. There were more opportunities for black people . . . and at least the law there was a little different. They didn’t have so many lynchings and hangings.”
In 1896 Ragsdale’s grandfather opened a livery stable in Muskogee. “It was like the modern-day taxicab service,” Ragsdale explains. After the grandfather had been in business for several years, renting and leasing buggies and horses, he noted he received frequent requests for wagons to pick up coffins. “He decided he would start building coffins in back of the stable,” Ragsdale says. The pine coffins were body-shaped, large at the shoulders and small at the feet. Soon he was renting buggies on one side of the building and furnishing undertaking services from the other. “There was no embalming in those days,” Ragsdale says. “A person was buried immediately and the funeral might not be until six months later. People didn’t have time during harvest or when the crops were going in.” The elder Ragsdale would go to the home, help relatives wash, dress, and lay out the body. Both blacks and whites bought his coffins, but only blacks hired him to help prepare the body.
Until the Civil War, embalming was rarely done. Bodies were buried immediately, or kept on blocks of ice, or in tanks of formaldehyde. But during the Civil War, when men from the North died in the South, and vice versa, families wanted their dead returned home. Dr. Thomas Holmes, called the father of American embalming, was the first person to preserve bodies on a mass scale. According to Jessica Mitford, when the war started, Holmes “rushed to the front and started embalming like mad, charging the families of the dead soldiers one hundred dollars for his labors. Some four years and 4028 soldiers later (his own figure). Holmes returned to Brooklyn a rich man.”
In the early years of this century, a Dr. Reynard came to Muskogee to teach William Ragsdale to embalm. Reynard was traveling the Southwest, Hartwell Ragsdale says, “instructing people on how to embalm. He would stay with you for three weeks. If you didn't get a person’s body to embalm within three weeks, he would extend the period up to the time you got somebody. He would show the individual how to embalm and in exchange he would get to sell you the instruments and supply your embalming fluid. The fluid was shipped by rail in fifty-gallon wood jugs. Once my grandfather was able to embalm, he could hold bodies over for two or three weeks up to the time of a funeral service. This would give people time to gather relatives.”
William Ragsdale trained his seven sons as undertakers. But Muskogee was small, so each son went to another Oklahoma town, settled, and opened his own funeral home. (One son, back from service with the U.S. Army in World War I, was killed by the Klan, his body dumped behind his father’s Muskogee mortuary, his back riddled with bullet holes. The men who killed him had confused him with a black man who had escaped from prison. When he was accosted, he was on his way to pick up his wife from her job as a schoolteacher. “There had been race riots in Tulsa in 1921,” Ragsdale says. “Racial things were not good in Oklahoma at that time”)
In 1930 Ragsdale’s father moved to Ardmore, Oklahoma to open his own mortuary. Ragsdale’s mother, an elementary school teacher, had graduated from the all-black Langston College in Oklahoma, and continued to teach and to help out with the business. She was a particularly eloquent woman who did much of the mortuary’s publicity and visiting of bereaved families. Occasionally she would organize picnics out in the country for up to fifty people at a time, and would use the opportunity of the gathering to talk about funerals and to point to the necessity of preparing oneself for death. At these picnics she would also sell burial insurance as a way, in part, of guaranteeing future business for her sons. (At Anderson-Ragsdale today, there are 1200 fully paid-up burial insurance policies. When these policies’ beneficiaries die, the funerals will be entirely paid.)
One of the sons, Lincoln Ragsdale, served in World War II as a pilot in a segregated unit stationed near Phoenix. He quickly discovered that Arizona had not one licensed black funeral director, so in 1948 his father purchased property in Phoenix for Lincoln and Hartwell. They acquired a loan and opened a funeral home. In the wintertime, Hartwell recalls today, “I’d feel beautiful.” But when the weather in Phoenix would turn hot, he’d feel sick. Eventually he would learn that he had been allergic to air blowing across stagnant water in evaporative coolers (precursors to modern air conditioners). But by that time he had already come to California — where he always felt beautiful, he says — to look for a funeral home to buy.
Ed Anderson, who had owned the mortuary at Twenty-sixth Street and Imperial Avenue, Ragsdale says, “had just passed. So I did some surveys and never found one person in San Diego who said Mr. Anderson had been unfair. As he had no children and no relatives, I decided when I bought the mortuary from his estate, I’d keep his name on it.” Ragsdale’s first year in San Diego was tenuous financially, but after that, he says, “I had become acquainted and my business began to improve.” Ragsdale has watched San Diego grow. Before World War II, he says, the black population in San Diego County was small, only 3000 or 4000. “There was no industry, nothing then to draw black people here.” In 1956, the year that both Ragsdale and George Walker Smith arrived in San Diego, Ragsdale recalls that “there were three blacks on the police force, four in the fire department, and two in the city school system. Once George Smith got on the school board, he changed that! Our present police chief began to open opportunities for minorities. Because of affirmative action many departments in the county and city began to open up to blacks. Now we have a population of 55,000 in the city and 80,000 in the county, with a black middle-class population of about 5000 ”
As the black community has grown and become more permanent, more people have chosen to be buried in San Diego. “It used to be that bodies were shipped back home,” Ragsdale says. “There would be a service here for friends and family and then a second one at the home burial place. But only ten percent of the people do that now.” Ragsdale remembers, too. when more members of the black community in San Diego followed what still is a Southern way of “celebrating a home-going.” A wake or series of wakes would take place before the final funeral service. These were held in the home. The body would be displayed in an open casket in the living room. Food would be brought and shared, and for those who wanted it, Ragsdale says, “whiskey was always there . . .but it was outside, usually in the yard. There would be barbecue,” he says, smiling. “The wake might extend over three or four nights, depending on a man's station in life, his age, on how many lodges and organizations he belonged to. He might have served under three or four pastors, and each of them would preach. The preacher who pastored him forty years before, he'd lead the service the first night, and then the next man the following night, and so on. They’d end up the last night at the church with his present pastor. Then the next day the funeral services would be held.” There are few of these week-long wakes now in San Diego. Ragsdale says.
Anderson-Ragsdale's business continues to show a healthy five-percent-per-year increase. Although the mortuary handles an average of 300 bodies per year, Ragsdale admits he could make it financially with 200 bodies. “But only,” he adds, “because it is a family business.” That helps keep down the overhead, an outlay Ragsdale points out includes buying new hearses every two years and keeping the mortuary staffed around the clock, 365 days per year. He hopes to be able to pass the business to his son, an inheritance increasingly rare in the funeral industry at large and in San Diego. “Most mortuaries in the area, the average person does not even know who owns them now,” he says. Only four San Diego funeral homes are still owner-operated, according to Ragsdale, and the rest, he says, are run by large corporations. Until the last decade the funeral business remained a family operation. Fathers, like Ragsdale’s, passed it to sons. Inflation, recession, unemployment, a nationwide shift from embalming to cremation (heaviest in the West) — all have hurt the funeral business. Now many smaller mortuaries have been swallowed up by corporations that cut their costs by streamlining operations. An aggregate of mortuaries can be administered as one multiunit mortuary, with centralized bookkeeping, transportation, embalming and cremation facilities.
Ragsdale’s brother, Lincoln Ragsdale, solved his mortuary's financial problems in a different way. Lincoln Ragsdale told Black Enterprise magazine that in 1956, he changed the name of his Arizona business from Ragsdale Mortuary to Universal Memorial Center and actively went after white business. The magazine reported that he felt “if he changed the name of his funeral home, as well as its image, he could reach a broader market.” He took down his pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Booker T. Washington and “put up some white folk.” He hired white personnel. By 1977 his business had increased more than 300 percent. “For every black body I get,” Lincoln Ragsdale told Black Enterprise, “I have three white ones. I was almost bankrupt in 1965. There just wasn't enough business to support me. . . . We talk about integration but too often continue to work in all-black situations.”
Few black mortuaries have been able to accomplish what Lincoln Ragsdale has done in Arizona. And few have become part of larger organizations. Where such an aggregation of small mortuaries has been tried in black communities, notably in New York City, it has not been successful. “Families want to see a person they know. They expect to shake your hand, to hug and kiss,” Hartwell Ragsdale says. “For a black person, calling the mortuary is not like calling the plumber or the electrician.” Racism has fostered and protected the black funeral industry. In the late Thirties, when Swedish scholar Gunnar Myrdal was hired by the Carnegie Corporation to write about black life in America, he discovered that black barbers, hairdressers, and undertakers were alone among black Americans in having exclusively black businesses. White people, he learned, simply did not wish to touch or be touched by the black. “Negro corpses,” Myrdal wrote in The American Dilemma,
“are segregated even more meticulously than live people.”
Ragsdale recalls that prior to the 1954 federal civil rights act, segregation of blacks in San Diego extended from the home to the grave; some property deeds restricted blacks from purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods, and only two mortuaries and two cemeteries would permit blacks. The cemeteries, privately owned Greenwood and city-owned Mt. Hope (both near the intersection of Highway 94 and Interstate 15), set aside certain areas alongside the railroad tracks running through the properties and reserved them for blacks. That changed in 1954, and today no mortuary or cemetery in San Diego County will refuse a black body. In fact, Ragsdale says, “most mortuary businesses are able to survive by picking up this minority business, which in the past they did not want.” The change has come partly from the law but also as a result of cremation’s dire effect on the funeral business. “Now, in San Diego County, one-third of all mortuary business is direct cremation [cremation without prior embalming] and the profit on this is small,” Ragsdale explains. “To make it, you have to have a volume of this kind of business — direct cremation.” Minorities, he says, have become attractive to the funeral industry because “blacks, the Spanish-speaking population, Asians, Filipinos, Samoans don’t go for direct cremation.” Only fifteen percent of Ragsdale’s customers even ask the cost of direct cremation ($300 at Anderson-Ragsdale) and only four percent of the mortuary’s business is direct cremation.
Local white-owned mortuaries now bury black and other minority bodies, and some have hired minority employees. But Anderson-Ragsdale, even though Ragsdale claims his fees are the county’s lowest, is called by few white families. “We bury perhaps one white person a month,” he says, and adds wryly, “I’ve been black all my life, and I've experienced segregation. But integration has affected me more as a businessman. There was a time when I would have served ninety-nine percent of the local [black] community.”
When he was a child, Ragsdale remembers how afraid he was of death and dying. “All the time I was growing up, my prayer was every night, ‘Don’t let my father and mother die until I can take care of myself.’ Now I know that was kind of selfish. But you see, I knew that death was the only thing that could stop them from taking care of me.” Ragsdale’s parents died long after he had moved to San Diego. Their deaths hurt. “But it was their time,” Ragsdale says, “and because my father said he wanted to be close to us, they are buried here.” Death, he says, had never deeply upset him until 1977. “The only time death really stretches you is when it happens in your own family. My daughter, Rosalind, was killed in a one-car accident up by Oceanside, coming back from mortuary college. She was nineteen years old at the time.
“Death affected us more deeply than many families I deal with. Being a funeral director, I was supposed to be conditioned to death. And I did go through things, but only on the surface. Underneath I went through some horrible torment. I thought God had been unfair to me, and I would ask myself, ‘How could God have treated me so mean?’ But I have looked at it for a long time now. I think there was a purpose in it. I know now what the feelings are of parents when a son or daughter has passed. I help better.
“For so long I was afraid of death. But the death among loved ones has changed that. I realize I have to die. I am not afraid of death anymore. I have now, you see, as many friends and relatives outside of this life as I have inside it. I used to be afraid of what happens after death; I don’t like what I don’t know in the future. Now I am not afraid even of that. Enough people I was in love with have passed, and if there’s anything to this, I will be joining them. If they went anyplace, I want to go with them.”