“I think about what my father would do.”
By Richard L. Williams
When visitors arrive at one of Winston-Salem’s more successful and decades-old businesses, they approach through a façade of Crab Orchard stone-and-brick exterior. Once inside the entrance foyer, eyes almost certainly will gaze toward the cascading fountain and stone botanical flower garden surrounded by flowing ivy, all situated on a terrazzo floor.
The sweeping décor was part of a 1993 renovation of Russell Funeral Home, which first opened for business in the Twin City in 1939. This year, the family-owned enterprise celebrates 80 years of continued service.
The aesthetic enhancements were orchestrated by and became points of pride for Florrie S. Russell, the matriarch of the tight-knit Russell clan and who ran the funeral home for a decade after the death of her husband and business founder Carl H. Russell Sr., who died in 1987. She passed away in 1997.
Nine of the 11 Russell children are still alive and three of them work full time at the funeral home, helping to sustain the business their parents labored tirelessly to build.
“Looking at the efforts that our parents put forth in this business, from sunup to sundown and beyond, is the driving force that keeps us motivated to go out and serve families on a daily basis,” says Cedric L. Russell, 65, the business’s general manager. “Anytime I make any decision, especially a major decision, I think about what my father would do.
“After my father passed away, my mother took over. She was more of a free-wheeling boss who was willing to take chances,” he says. “When my father died, we weren’t doing the type of businesses in volume that we’re doing now. But once my mother took over, she took a whole different approach to go out and be aggressive from the standpoint of making visible changes for the public that we served.”
Russell Sr. was adopted as a boy by Charles Green and Mary Rose Russell and grew up in Winston-Salem. He graduated with honors from Johnson C. Smith University, taught school for a few years before heading north to study embalming at the University of Minnesota.
He opened Russell Funeral Home in October 1939. It initially was located on Seventh Street. To get started, he used equipment purchased from a funeral home director in Virginia that had gone out of business.
Russell Sr. built the business with sheer determination and resourcefulness, although it took a while for the new funeral home to become established since most people remained loyal to the same funeral home that had buried previous loved ones. However, he was able to supplement business earnings by operating an ambulance service.
In 1962, the business moved to the corner of what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Carl Russell Avenue and operated out of the Christian Building until 1964 when a new structure was built at the same location. The business’s current address is 822 Carl Russell Ave.
By this time, Russell Sr. had become heavily involved in local politics. He was elected to the city council in 1961, and years later would launch an unsuccessful bid for mayor. He also owned the city’s first black newspaper and had a weekly radio show. Likely because of his community and political involvement, business fell off.
He also was begot by sickness and legal woes in his final years. In January 1980, he pled guilty to a single count of federal tax evasion and received a six-month sentence.
Larry Little, a political science professor at Winston-Salem State University, fondly remembers Russell Sr. as a father figure, staunch community advocate, and political mentor who encouraged him to run for political office. Little was a member of the city council in 1980 when he successfully fought for Russell Sr.’s early release from prison because of his failing health.
“I think ‘Big Daddy’ was the most important black figure in our city’s history,” Little says. “I learned so much from Big Daddy. My relationship with him goes back to 1974.”
Little says Russell Funeral Home remains a pillar in the African American community because of its community involvement.
“If you look at the sponsors of any significant event in the community, Russell Funeral Home is going to be there,” he adds. “They give back and they’re visible in the community.
“Cedric has taken the business to another level. Big Daddy was the base and he had a loyal following of Cedric, Carmen, Carl Jr., Ed, Chris, and all of them. Eighty years – that’s something, man. The way the children have kept it together is simply amazing.”
‘WANTED NO PART’
Carmen Russell Bonham, 63 and the youngest of the children, says she reluctantly joined the family business. After graduating from Tennessee State University, she moved to Los Angeles.
However, when her father’s health began declining she returned to Winston-Salem to assist with the business. She moved into the funeral home, which is where most funeral directors lived during that time, and has been a staple at the business ever since.
“I helped him carry out all the things that he was involved in,” she says. “He would take me with him to his Sunday morning radio show. He would talk about politics, religion, bereavement; he talked about anything that was on his mind. Sometimes he’d throw me into the fire and put me on the radio.
“But I wanted no part of this business,” she adds. “I saw the microscope that Daddy was constantly under and I did not want to be under that microscope. There’s nothing easy about this business. People don’t see the sweat, the blood, and sometimes the tears that take place behind the scenes.”
Among the many things she learned from watching her father was to always be available when people needed someone to be there to help them service a decedent.
“I remember as a child we’d be sitting down as a family having dinner and the phone would ring,” she says. “Daddy would get up from the table and leave his plate right where it was and answer the call. That’s one of the many things I remember as a young girl and it left an impression on me.”
A CHANGING INDUSTRY
Cedric Russell says he has seen many changes over the years in the funeral industry, which is estimated to be worth approximately $22 billion in the U.S. annually.
In 2015, the National Funeral Directors Association stated that the industry was trending toward increased interest in technology, personalization, cremation and “green” funerals. Those preferences, Russell says, reflect the demands of Generation X and millennial family members who are increasingly responsible for managing funeral arrangements for loved ones.
“Cremations are definitely on the rise,” Russell says. “And it’s not necessarily economic driven. Sometimes it’s economic, but a lot of times it’s a matter of choices. Some people just choose to go that route. It’s increased with us about 30 percent. Right now, we are about 65 percent traditional burial and 35 percent cremation, whereas it used to be about 95 to 5. I see that trend continuing.”
The average cost for a traditional funeral service and burial is between $8,000 and $10,000, according to the NFDA. According to the Cremations Research Council, the average cremation cost about $1,500 to $3,000. The number of cremations in the U.S. has exceeded 50 percent for three consecutive years and a report released last year by the NFDA predicted that the rate will reach 80 percent by 2035.
Another NFDA survey, conducted in 2017, says only 39.5 percent of the population felt it was very important to have religion incorporated into a funeral service. Because of that, in many instances celebrations of life are replacing traditional funerals and many services are held at non-traditional venues including outdoor settings or at a space significant to the deceased.
“Millennials come with a whole different thought process – not only about dying, but about living,” Russell says. “They bring about a whole different genre of how to do things in their everyday lives, and then how to do things once transition takes place. They’re different thinkers.
“Millennials are going to hold on to the wishes of their forefathers to a degree,” he adds. “But for the most part, they’re going to do basically what they want to do and it looks as if cremations and natural burials are becoming more popular for them.”
Despite changes in the industry, Russell says, some things remain constant: comforting grief-stricken families. That task gets especially difficult, he says, when it involves the death of a small child.
“That really is as challenging a task as any – dealing with a grief-stricken family when they’ve lost a young person,” he says.
‘THE GUIDING HAND’
Russell says the family is blessed to be celebrating its eightieth anniversary and that it has exceeded the vision he foresaw for the business about 25 years ago. The funeral home has about 20 employees, 12 of whom are full time.
“In 1994 that was the time when the transition in numbers were really taking place,” he says. “My brother Carl Jr. was still living, my sister Charlene and Christopher were still heavily involved in the business and my mother was still living. She was the guiding hand. She was truly a visionary – best boss we ever worked for.”
He says his parents did not mandate that the children join the family business.
“My parents allowed us to be independent thinkers,” he says. “I was a late bloomer into the business. I went out and worked in corporate America before I came into the business. It gave me a skillset that I could apply here on a daily basis.
“We were allowed to think as freely as we wanted to,” he adds. “They just set the tone and the example.”
Edward B. Russell, 74, says one of the most rewarding things about working at the family business is that he’s exceedingly happy doing what he’s doing.
“If you’re not happy then you’re not going to be too successful,” he says. “This is a ‘want-to’ business. You’ve got to want to do this, because it is a 24/7 business.”
He says much hasn’t changed from when he started working at the funeral home nearly six decades ago.
“We’re basically doing it the same way Daddy did it,” he says. “The only thing we did was modify. We have the same principles. Among the things that my dad taught us, No. 1 was the preparation of the remains and No. 2 was service to the public in the proper way the public should be serviced. All we need to do is stick to what we’ve been taught.”
He says he believes that his father would be proud of the way the family has stuck together and been good stewards of the business he founded.
“He would be very, very pleased – and to know that we’re working together like we are,” he says. “We have stayed together by the grace of the good master. Every day is not a good day, but thank God there are more good days than bad.”