Helpful Hands on Life’s Last Segregated Journey
By Kim Severson
MADISON, Ga. — When a black person dies in one of the rural counties around here, chances are the body will end up in the hands of Charles Menendez.
First, he offers a little prayer and asks the person on the table to help him make the job go smoothly. Then he gets down to work, embalming the body like an old-school craftsman.
“You don’t want the family to touch Grandmama and feel it cold and hard,” he said. “You want flexibility in the skin. The idea is to leave a good memory picture for them.”
All of his cases are black. They always have been. If Sunday remains the most segregated day in the South, funerals remain the most segregated business. In the same way that generations of tradition dictate the churches people attend, the races tend to bury their own.
“That’s the way it has always been here in the rural areas,” Mr. Menendez said. “White funeral homes employ white embalmers, and black funeral homes employ black embalmers. That’s the South.”
Mr. Menendez, 59, handled his first body when he was a junior in high school. Now he runs a 94-year-old funeral home about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta.
But with another black-owned funeral home in town competing for business and only about 60 deaths among blacks a year, it is not really possible to make a living. So he also works as a contract embalmer, traveling the back roads of Georgia to funeral homes in places like Union Point and Social Circle that are too small to afford a full-time employee to prepare the dead.
He charges $225 a body. For autopsy cases, he adds $50. A body with certain blood-borne infectious diseases costs $350.
His base of operations is the Mapp-Gilmore funeral home in Madison, a town of antebellum homes built with cotton riches and slave labor that was spared from the fires set by Union troops during Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous March to the Sea.
The funeral home was the first black-owned business in town. Two sisters inherited it from their father and then passed it down to other family members.
Mr. Menendez, who went to embalming school in Atlanta, began working there in 1986. He bought the business in 2001 with help from the Rev. Hoke Smith, the pastor at Calvary Baptist Church.
“He is the best embalmer in the state,” Mr. Smith said. “When he gets the person, he looks better than when he was alive. That’s the art of what he does.”
Their small funeral home used to be the place where men sat outside and gossiped over checkers. But the neighborhood changed. In an effort at urban renewal, the city recently added a park across the street where people gather.
Mr. Menendez’s embalming room is in the back, past the old sofas and the dusty silk flowers and the long, low table where the coffins are placed and the wide stairs the bereaved trudge to select one of nine coffins on display.
The least expensive is a cloth-covered box that sells for $650. Even that is getting too costly for some.
“The black families come in here over all on average with about $5,000 or a little more in insurance,” Mr. Menendez said. “But everyone’s getting poorer since the economy fell. For some, cremation is all they can afford.”
The embalming room is old, tidy and startling in its simplicity. It looks like a beauty shop someone might run from home.
“This is what I call my little kitchen,” he said.
The embalming table was state of the art maybe 50 or 75 years ago. No one really knows when it was set up. But it is sturdy and serves the purpose.
A tall wooden cabinet holds the fluid that is at the heart of his craft. The bottles have names like Frigid Rigid. And there are newer formulations on the market, chemical mixes that promise softer results, better tinting and fewer noxious fumes.
He prefers products from Dodge, which has been making embalming fluid since 1893. But, he says, “I can do it with whatever’s on the shelf.”
The art of embalming, he said, is about the embalmer, not the tools.
It takes about an hour to embalm a body and another hour to dress it. The trick, Mr. Menendez said, is to release the tension in a face, fill in sunken spots and make sure clothes drape naturally.
But that is just half the game. Mr. Menendez has also become practiced in the art of handling grief. The moment people walk in the door, he can tell how prepared they are and how difficult his job will be.
“Each individual takes grief differently,” he said. “You have people who hold things in, others who are out of control. Some have gone through it and prepared themselves.”
Whatever the state of the family, he runs a funeral old school. Quiet processionals. Dark suits. Somber viewings.
Mr. Menendez is not a man prone to criticism, but he is not fond of the ways younger, flashier funeral directors in Atlanta — where prices can be four times as much as his — conduct themselves.
“They think the dress-up part is what it’s about,” he said. “You got guys going down the aisles strutting like it’s a line dance.”
For him, embalming the dead and preparing a funeral is simply about making it as easy as possible to put someone to rest.
“Look,” he said, “funeral service is something you either love or you don’t love. It’s a service. You have to have a feel for it.”