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Such sweet sorrow

The man who ran the funeral home at 850 22nd St. S for decades bids the building and a way of life a wistful goodbye.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- No one stepped up to buy the old funeral home when it was auctioned at the courthouse. Now a Chicago-based bank owns a piece of history and part of Irving Sanchez Jr.'s heart.

"It was my identity," Sanchez said last week, overseeing the details of closing his building at 850 22nd St. S. "I used to be busy."

Time was, he'd buy two big hearses at a time. A pair from around 1970 rested in the portico, half-hidden by a moving truck. The Cadillacs still run but haven't been started for so long that their batteries might be dead, Sanchez said.

His association with the funeral home began in 1958 and under his ownership, it became the Sanchez Arch Royal, where two or three funerals a week were typical.

"A hustling, bustling, thriving enterprise," said Darryl Rouson, Sanchez's lawyer.

In the heart of what once was the African-American community's main street, the site has been home to a mortuary under one ownership or another since 1929, records say.

But few businesses remain on 22nd Street, long quiet as a mainstream boulevard. Sanchez said he conducted two funerals early this year. The past two years have been excruciatingly slow, he said.

"Who'd want to have a funeral here?" mused Sanchez, his gesture taking in both the street and the building.

He said he provided a daily beer for a neighborhood acquaintance to at least pick up litter outside. Dropping business takes its toll. The First National Bank of Chicago foreclosed a few weeks ago, according to court records.

Sanchez, 71, remained dapper even amid the emotional strain and the dust of closing his building. His blue blazer carried a shield from the University of Minnesota, where the 1995 Florida mortician of the year earned a mortuary science degree and won recognition for his embalming skill.

He apologized to visitors for not being able to offer them chairs in his office, where only a battered desk remained.

"You know, I always carried a briefcase," Sanchez said. "I carried it out (Tuesday) and I could have cried."

Sanchez explored another career before joining relatives in the funeral profession. Also a graduate of Tuskegee Institute, where he earned a commercial dietetics degree, Sanchez taught at Florida A&M and was assistant food services director there.

Home called the Pinellas County native, and he became an activist. City government recognized his efforts to end slum and blight conditions. Old newspapers stories record his unsuccessful 1968 campaign for the School Board.

Sanchez preferred last week to reminisce -- sometimes wistfully -- about the funeral business. Every few minutes, his grandson John Dowdell, helping move, popped in to reassure and banter. "Granddaddy, it's gonna be all right," he said.

Business has changed for funeral directors, not always for the better, Sanchez said. "Cremations, whites burying blacks ... and we don't have that bosomy love for one another anymore," Sanchez said, patting his chest.

He recalls his biggest funeral, 25 years ago. It was that of a man who worked at the old Suwannee Hotel downtown. The procession, he said, wound from the funeral home to the hotel, where it stopped before moving on to services at McCabe United Methodist Church.

"We had a couple hundred people come, maybe more," Sanchez said.

He'll retire to his house a few blocks away in the same Melrose Mercy/Pine Acres neighborhood.

The funeral home lies in what was formerly called the Challenge area, but is outside the proposed Dome Industrial Park and its pilot redevelopment project.

The property was most recently assessed at $94,100, according to county records. Its future is not clear.

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