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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Grim reaping: Funeral home shakeup causes grave concerns

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The abrupt removal of a beloved local funeral home manager last week shocked the community, and digging deeper into the story has uncovered concerns that could haunt local residents for years to come.

Last week, many members of the community expressed outrage and confusion after learning that Nathan L. Bluitt Jr., location manager of Williams and Bluitt Funeral Home, was ousted from his post by Service Corporation International (SCI), the conglomerate that recently took control of the business.

Bluitt, who had been the sole proprietor of the entity since 1992, sold his business to Wilson Financial Group, a Black-owned funeral home acquisition firm formerly owned by Gerald Wilson, in 2011. SCI has had majority interest of Wilson Financial Group (WFG) since 2008.

Pastor Timothy G. Taylor, of Tabernacle Baptist Church, is part of a group of Indianapolis pastors on a fact-finding mission to learn what exactly happened and where the situation goes from here.

“We want to know what the issue is and what’s going on and if there’s a way to resolve this. There are 240,000 African-Americans in Marion County. If (SCI is) going to serve this community, we want to know who they are. We also want to know what they’re going to give back to this community,” Taylor said. “Folks at Tabernacle will not go to Williams and Bluitt if Nathan Bluitt is not there. That’s just not going to happen.”

Other clergy shared those sentiments.

In a written statement provided to the Recorder, SCI stated: “Mr. Bluitt, the location manager of Williams and Bluitt Funeral Home, served families well during his tenure. Unfortunately, as the result of certain fiscal discrepancies uncovered in an ongoing internal investigation, Mr. Bluitt’s employment was terminated. None of the discrepancies uncovered relate to the quality of services provided to our client families. Because these matters are the subject of litigation, we cannot disclose further details.”

Though Bluitt, who remains the sole proprietor of Bluitt and Son Funeral Home in Kokomo, Indiana, was shocked at SCI’s decision, he said he is grateful to the Indianapolis community for the support he’s been shown over the years and in light of this recent development.

“When my building burned down in October of 2006, they were there to support me. They saw me through that. For four years, I didn’t have a chapel and they supported me. I just want to say thanks from the bottom of my heart for all of their support and their understanding,” he said, adding a paraphrased quote from late pastor Dr. Myles Monroe. “You can fire me from a job, but you cannot fire me from my God-given gift. It’s like telling a fish not to swim. When you shoo a bird away, it leaves in flight. It still has its gift. For those who are dealing with similar situations in corporate America, I would like to give them that word of encouragement.”

When asked if he expected to one day be removed from his role after selling his firm, Bluitt said he had some suspicions recently. According to his account, SCI officers had been in town for a couple of days before reaching out to him with an invitation to lunch. Heeding the advice of his attorney, Bluitt declined the offer due in large part to the fact that he currently has an outstanding lawsuit filed against Wilson Financial Group. The nature of the lawsuit, he was not at liberty to discuss simply stating that it stemmed from a disagreement over operational procedures. After sharing with SCI that he would not meet with them, he was told verbally that his “services were no longer needed at Williams and Bluitt.”

“I never experienced going to work and having the thought that someone could fire me since 1983. There was no one in the world I answered to except my clients and sometimes my employees if I was going the wrong direction with them,” said Bluitt. “So to all of a sudden be in a seat where someone could say get up and get out, it was in the back of my mind, but it was never something I thought could happen.” 

Bluitt said there were issues throughout his relationship with Wilson Financial Group, but none he felt couldn’t have been resolved.

“Just like in any relationship; marriage, partnership, business or whatever … you’re going to have your disagreements. The Wilson Financial Group and I have certainly had our disagreements through the first five years of our agreement, but we were able to move forward, resolve them and continue to make sure that our baby, Williams and Bluitt, was healthy,” he said. 

The decision to pursue a relationship with WFG began for Bluitt as a means of survival. After purchasing the facility that used to house People’s Funeral Home, Bluitt realized that extensive work — to the tune of $1 million — needed to be done on the building. Without funding or a successor lined up to assist in creating a stable future for the business, he began to seek out other options.

“I had talked with one funeral service leader in this community about joining their team and also I had talked to another investor about partnering with me. I had also been talking to Mr. Gerald Wilson (of WFG) during this period,” said Bluitt. 

Bluitt said he and Wilson had many things in common. Neither of the men had family members who were interested in taking on the businesses, and both wanted to make sure their respective legacies lived on. Bluitt saw that through partnering with SCI, Wilson was able to have access to different suppliers and industry services. Going corporate seemed, at the time, to be the best option.

“It was a very hard decision, but Mr. Wilson was the one I decided to make the decision to go with. Number one, because he was African-American. Number two, it was his connection with the largest conglomerate here in the United States … a publicly traded company. That’s the reason why I joined them, and under that agreement/partnership, I was to remain on because Wilson understood that I had built the business, and he understood the sacrifice that my family had been through to get to the point where we were,” said Bluitt. “The fact that he had other African-American firms throughout the country and the fact that he had dealt with other firms the way he dealt with me, I figured it would be a great relationship and a great way to continue my name here in this city.”

Bluitt says Williams and Bluitt has increased their volume significantly since that time, taking on 100 new clients annually. Bluitt hopes his days of fostering growth at the funeral home are not over.

“It would be great if we could sit down and iron out our differences,” he said. “In an ideal world, an amicable agreement or plan that would be agreeable for both of us would be great, but we don’t live in an ideal world sometimes, and that’s difficult.”

As it currently stands, it doesn’t seem that a makeup is on the horizon, leaving the future of many clients hanging in the balance. 

Bluitt estimates there are hundreds of customers who have pre-needs already established with the company. According to state law, those contracts can be transferred to any funeral home where they will still be honored, though costs and types of service may vary. Taylor said he’s heard from congregants concerned about their next steps and looking to him for guidance.

“My people are calling me, ‘Pastor, what do I do?’ We have people with pre-needs, and they want to know what to do. Do we pull them from Williams and Bluitt? If I have to stand up and tell my people not to go there anymore, my people are not going there anymore,” said Taylor.

As for his recommendation, Taylor is waiting until he has more information about SCI. As of press time, Taylor and WFG President Tony Lynch, who is also market director at SCI, had a meeting planned to discuss the future of the business and the company’s former owner.

“We’re not just going to allow an entity to come into this community and bury our people and mistreat someone who has been an integral part of this community,” he said. “We all have stories of families who’ve sat down in Nathan Bluitt’s office and didn’t have a dime, but needed to bury their people. And Nathan said we’ll work it out.”

 

Dearth of diversity

Regardless of the outcome of Bluitt’s situation, SCI is now fully in charge of operations at Williams and Bluitt, and many in the community are concerned about what that might mean for the local business’ legacy, especially related to its role in the Black community.

According to SCI’s website, all of the company’s corporate officers and all members of its board of directors are white. The Recorder asked SCI about the overall diversity of the company, if the company has any potential plans to add minorities to leadership positions and how SCI plans to ensure it’s meeting the needs of the Black community. A spokesperson sent the following response:

“Service Corporation International and Wilson Financial Group are committed to honoring diversity and attending to the unique needs of the African-American community through a nationwide network of funeral homes and cemeteries. Locally, Aundray Jones, in her fifth year at Williams and Bluitt Funeral Home, is the new manager and will continue to serve the families of Williams and Bluitt with the same level of service excellence that has been provided in the past.”

Still, Taylor voiced concerns ahead of his meeting with WFG/SCI’s Lynch. 

“If you’re going to come into this community and attempt to service the 240,000 African-Americans in this community, what are you going to be giving back to the 240,000 African-Americans in this community?” Taylor said.

When asked if he finds solace in the fact that Lynch is African-American, Taylor downplayed the significance.

“He might be Black, but the people pulling the strings are not Black. He’s Black, but his paycheck comes from the white corporate world,” Taylor said.

Bluitt, calling himself the “first fatality” of SCI’s takeover of WFG, expressed concern about what may be in store for other African-American funeral home owners.

“I pray to God that this doesn’t represent the future of their relationships, especially with African-American funeral directors,” he said. “If they seek to have any other acquisitions, they should definitely be sensitive to the African-American funeral (homes) they acquire.”

Going forward, Bluitt said he hopes to see more color on the SCI board, suggesting that Wilson would be a valuable addition.

“It would be great if he was on that board and was able to advise them and give them knowledge on dealing with the African-American community, funeral directors and employees,” he said. “You don’t develop that (knowledge) living across the fence; you only develop it living amongst the people.” 

And locally, Bluitt has some suggestions for SCI.

“It’s my hope that they go into these communities — not just sneak in the back door, sit down and thrive off these communities financially — but go in and actually see what is needed,” he said. “They are a part of a national African-American community and now they are burying their loved ones. It’s important that they love the community and give back to it.”

Another concern beyond the entirely white leadership team: SCI has faced accusations of illegal racial discrimination. A suit was filed against the company by a former employee alleging that SCI “discriminated against African-Americans in making promotions to certain management positions.” Though the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas declined to honor the plaintiff’s request to elevate the case to class-action status, SCI ultimately settled the case out of court in August 2015.

Though the federal government tracks the racial and ethnic makeup within most industries, the so-called “death care” sector has so few employees that the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t break its data down by race.

Anecdotally, though, there is evidence that the Black-owned funeral home is becoming a thing of the past.

A spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association (NFDMA), a trade association for African-American funeral practitioners, told the Recorder that the majority of its members own their own businesses. Though specific data about recent membership trends was not available as of Recorder press time, a report published in January 2016 in The Atlantic says NFDMA’s membership numbers have decreased.

(NFDMA) Director Carol Williams told the outlet the organization does not track the number of Black-owned funeral homes in the U.S., but membership is shrinking. “NFDMA represented 1,200 at the time of the interview, 2,000 in 1997,” the article said, noting that the industry trend toward chains and corporations “swallowing up” independent businesses has drastically altered the makeup of the industry.

SCI has been a major player in that trend, as the largest chain in the death-care industry.

SCI’s footprint has grown so large that the federal government has had to intervene. The FTC ruled in a 2008 settlement that SCI could not acquire Alderwoods Group Inc. unless the company first sold properties or ended licensing agreements in dozens of markets across the country.

Depending on how the meeting between the pastors and SCI’s Lynch goes, Taylor said the company could have to answer to more than just the feds.

“If they don’t come to an agreement or come to the table and talk, we have every intention to talk to every media outlet in this city, and every pastor in this city will rally together, and we will not send our people to Williams and Bluitt,” he said. “They own funeral homes all over the country. We know pastors all over the country. We’ll make sure a list goes out … to remind them of what they did in the city of Indianapolis. We’ll make sure our constituents will know.

“We’ll make every effort we can to make sure they feel it in their pockets.”

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