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  • Black morticians feel betrayed by Lyons deal

    By TIM ROCHE

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 12, 1997


    CLEARWATER -- For 22 years, funeral director Robert Young says, he has tried to offer personalized service to families of African-Americans in their time of grief. He has consoled them. He has buried them.

    But now, Young and other black morticians fear their survival in the business world is threatened by a large, white-owned conglomerate known as the Loewen Group that seems poised to take over the death industry.

    A catalyst of this threat is the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, who has sought to deliver a market of 8.5-million churchgoers to the Loewen Group. Lyons has endorsed the Canadian-owned company as the "death-care provider of choice" for the National Baptist Convention USA.

    In return, the convention has received more than $200,000 from Loewen. Lyons and several others also are paid a regular salary by money provided by the company.

    This business alliance was struck by Lyons, who as president of the nation's largest organization of black churches has long preached the importance of black empowerment.


    Robert Young, owner of Young Funeral Home in Clearwater, fears that his survival in the business is threatened by the deal with the Canadian-owned company.
    (Times Photo by Joan Kadel Fenton)

    "We are a strong people," Lyons once told his convention members. "Look at Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and today the likes of Nelson Mandela: Black folk who rise in spite of the obstacles and challenges the white man places in our path."

    Almost right away, critics of the deal between the convention and Loewen argued that Lyons was not practicing what he preached. Independent funeral home operators said they felt undermined, even betrayed.

    "We were left out," said Young, whose Clearwater funeral home has been in business since 1975.

    "Who has been the biggest supporter for the black church? It's been the black funeral directors. Who has been there over the years before Loewen came onto the scene? In general, we've been there. It's one of the few independent businesses that African-Americans can claim as their own -- somewhat like the church."

    * * *

    Death and dying are big business. The funeral and cemetery industry generates an estimated $7-billion to $9-billion in yearly revenues.

    Loewen is the second largest operator of cemeteries and funeral homes in North America. Its growth has come from the consolidation of privately owned cemeteries and funeral homes, especially since fewer sons and daughters are taking over family businesses. It solicits funeral home operators to sell to the company as actively as its cemeteries market gravesites.

    Two years ago, the National Baptist Convention and Loewen agreed to join forces and sell cemetery plots, burial services and merchandise such as vaults and tombstones.

    Under the plan, Loewen offers a 10 percent discount to convention members who buy cemetery services through their churches. In return, pastors or churches receive 6 percent of the money spent by their parishioners.

    Working through the church, counselors are trained and licensed to market the cemetery services, mostly on a pre-death basis. They receive between 5 and 10 percent in commissions, and the National Baptist Convention (or its related organizations) receives a modest percentage. Altogether, Loewen pays out a third of the sales in commissions and discounts.

    David A. Laundy, a spokesman for Loewen in Vancouver, British Columbia, said the company's arrangement with the national convention is similar to deals the Baptist group has reached with other private corporations.

    "It provides benefits for the members of the church, and it takes advantage of their buying power," Laundy said.

    Lyons has talked often about the buying power of African-Americans -- what he has called "leveraging power through unity." He has tried to parley the nation's black Baptists into a buying cooperative named the Revelation Corp. and into a proposed convention hotel on prime waterfront property in Fort Lauderdale. He even has explored Nigeria as a possible marketplace for black Americans to get into the oil and construction business.

    Lyons has promised to achieve the long-overdue economic empowerment by creating what he has said will be "an impressive array of dynamic, forward-looking organizations."

    "It's time we begin to use the real strength we have, which is economics," Lyons told black newspaper publishers earlier this year. "We must also begin to realize our consumer ability and learn to maximize it to the fullest."

    * * *

    The deal with Loewen was supposed to be a step in the right direction, but independent funeral operators considered it a backward move.

    To market the cemetery services on behalf of the Loewen Group, the convention established the National African-American Church Council.

    From a cramped, corner office on the first floor of Pleasant Lane Baptist Church in Washington, the NAACC claims it has recruited about 200 churches and hired about 100 counselors to be part of the program in three pilot cities and surrounding areas.

    Those pilot cities are St. Petersburg, where Lyons is minister of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Detroit and Washington, D.C.

    The Rev. John D. Chaplin, first vice president of the national convention and chief operating officer at NAACC, said the group has had $1.5-million to $2-million in sales since the program began in 1995.

    Profits, he said, have been minimal.

    "I wouldn't say we're operating at a loss," he said. "For a startup program, it has met with a measure of success. Yet it has not achieved all it could achieve. . . . At this stage in the game, you don't reach the top in the first couple of years. You get established so you can make the money you want to."

    As part of the agreement with the Loewen Group, the NAACC and the National Baptist Convention are supposed to donate a percentage of the proceeds to Bible colleges, seminaries and black universities. However, Chaplin said he was unsure how much has gone to the schools.

    Critics have been quick to say that the NAACC is no more than a cover for Loewen, meant to appease concerns amongs blacks who prefer not to do business with a white-owned corporation.

    Independent funeral operators call the deal an unholy alliance in which Lyons demonstrated no respect of black undertakers in black America. In their view, plainly put, Lyons sold them out.

    "It's almost like Judas and the 30 pieces of silver," said Earle Banks, the fourth-generation owner of People's Funeral Home in Jackson, Miss. "Are black churches for sale? At this point I'd have to say if they are affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, the answer may be yes."

    "It's not about 30 pieces of silver; it's about a great deal more," Lyons responded in a recent interview with the Religion News Service. "Everybody wants to nail me to the cross. My intentions were and are totally noble and honest. . . . I tell you, ain't nobody any blacker than Henry Lyons."

    Lyons has said repeatedly that the program has produced jobs for church members who work as counselors to sell the cemetery services. The rationale behind the agreement remains black economic empowerment, he said.

    "As we build jobs, we continue to take people off welfare and give them dignity through work, and a credible job that will allow them to feed their families," Lyons told the Wall Street Journal in a story last month.

    He said some churches already are known to be involved in some aspects of the funeral business. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has owned its own cemeteries for years.

    The deal with the National Baptist Convention has been praised by some financial analysts as an innovative plan for the company to penetrate a market that was almost untouchable by outsiders.

    It could be a way to increase competition and lower prices for consumers, the analysts say.

    But the independent funeral directors say worries go beyond the national convention selling Loewen's cemetery plots. In addition to counseling the grief stricken and burying loved ones, black funeral operators say they can provide an intimate service that lofty corporations cannot in the franchising of the death-care industry.

    Robert L. Creal, whose funeral home in St. Petersburg has operated since 1955, said he and others in the business often must be "bankers" and lend money to their clients.

    "All this has taken all of the compassion out of the death profession," Creal said. "It's sale, sale, sale. Take your commission and get out of the way."

    In February 1996, several independent funeral operators met with Lyons at his St. Petersburg church to discuss the Loewen deal. Among them was Joyce Tucker, a Virginia undertaker who is past president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, which mostly represents black funeral operators.

    During the meeting, Tucker recalls, Lyons indicated he had not realized the potential impact on independent funeral operators. After the meeting, Lyons tried to make amends.

    He later told the funeral directors that he went back to Loewen to renegotiate the contract and ensure that Loewen offered gravesites and other cemetery services, not complete funerals.

    "There has always been a close connection between African-American funeral directors and the church. We've always worked hand-in-hand for the good of our people," Tucker said. "Dr. Lyons knows our feelings. We've spoken to other ministers in various states to express our concerns. We're hoping that this contractual agreement will be looked at again."

    Last week, Lyons spoke at the annual conference of the funeral directors' association in Norfolk, Va. He told the members, again, that he had not realized the full impact of the Loewen deal on independent funeral directors.

    But, according to executive director Sharon Seay, Lyons said that neither he nor the Baptist convention had received any money directly from the Loewen Group for the program.

    At times, Lyons seemed defensive. At others, he was humble. In the end, Seay said, Lyons told the members that the contract with the Loewen Group would expire this year and he did not plan to renew it.

    "Our feelings are that Loewen already has gotten in the door. He provided the entree," Seay said. "No matter how apologetic Mr. Lyons was, our board felt he still had provided Loewen the opportunity."

    Despite what Lyons told the funeral directors, the National Baptist Convention's annual report for 1995-96 shows the organization did receive money from Loewen: $100,000 is listed as a "gift."

    Tom Franco, another spokesman for the Loewen Group, said the company has given the convention as much as $200,000 in charitable contributions. The money was paid in three installments between June and December 1995, he said.

    In addition, he said, the company continues to provide money -- how much, he will not say -- to cover "salaries" for Lyons and others associated with the NAACC, including Chaplin and Bernice Edwards.

    Edwards, a convicted embezzler with whom Lyons owns a $700,000 house on Tierra Verde, a Lake Tahoe timeshare condominium and a Rolls Royce, is the executive secretary at the NAACC. Last week, Lyons told his St. Petersburg congregation that he was severing all business ties to Edwards, but he was not specific about what he meant.

    Executives at the Loewen Group said Lyons had not notified them about his intentions regarding Edwards or about renewing the contract with Loewen.

    However, the company now is evaluating the program. The company's spokesmen would not say whether Loewen has asked for any of its money back.

    "We're happy with the concept of the program," said Laundy, the spokesman in Vancouver. "It's run for a while. It's time for us to do a review of the strengths and weaknesses and determine a future for the program."

    Lyons has not responded to questions about Loewen from the St. Petersburg Times. But one of his lawyers, Grady Irvin of Tampa, has said that the agreement with the Loewen Group was good for consumers and that many of the complaints have subsided.

    But, he said, "the program has not been as successful as many had hoped, including Dr. Lyons."
    -- Times staff writer David Barstow contributed to this report, which includes information from Religion News Service and the Tennessean in Nashville.

      ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.