By Richard L. Williams
As the holiday season fast approaches, this is the time of year when Thomie Douthit often experiences mixed emotions. On the one hand he enjoys jubilant times with family and friends; on the other, he often consoles families who have lost love ones.
Such is the job – and life – of one of Winston-Salem’s preeminent funeral directors.
“The holiday season can be a difficult time to be in the funeral services business,” he says. “However, the level of service we provide to families during the holiday season is no different than what we provide 365 days of the year. The hallmark of our business has always been compassion, consideration and concern and we do not stray from those core values regardless the family or the time of year. The comfort of the families who entrust us with their loved ones is paramount at all times.”
Those core values have served Douthit well in the seventeen years he’s operated Douthit Funeral Services in Winston-Salem. He has been a licensed funeral director for forty-eight years and has owned his own business since 2000.
PEOPLE-FIRST business model
His success, he says, is anchored in a business model wherein he routinely advises clients to eschew some of his core business services in order to keep grieving families from becoming overextended financially. He regularly tells them that they do not need to rent from his fleet of Cadillac Escalades and limousines.
“When black people have funerals many of their relatives arrive in town in some of the finest cars imaginable,” he says, “so it doesn’t make sense for a family that is already stretched financially to pay my business several hundred dollars to rent automobiles that’s going to keep them in a hole financially for the next year or more. They can find a better way to use that money.”
Douthit says it would be difficult for him to live with himself if he took advantage of grieving families in order to pad the coffers of his business.
“God has promised me that He will provide my business what I am intended to have,” Douthit says. “I don’t have to go out and try to take what He has not intended for me to have.”
Douthit’s practice of putting people before profit has served him well since he conducted his first funeral service seventeen years ago. Before founding Douthit Funeral Services, he had been an employee at Gilmore Funeral Home but left in 2000 and had no idea what he would do.
Then he got a phone call from a woman who asked him to handle her husband’s funeral. Despite the fact that Douthit did not have any cars, a chapel, or a place to embalm the body, the woman was insistent that he handle the services.
Because he had spent years building goodwill as a compassionate funeral service director at Gilmore’s, Douthit was able to call upon several area funeral directors for assistance. He contacted Clarke Brown of Clarke S. Brown & Sons Funeral Home, whom he’d known for years as a colleague and mentor and asked to use Brown’s embalming room. His then-wife, who still worked at Gilmore’s, agreed to loan him a hearse but when he went to pick one up none were available; he ended up borrowing one from Hooper’s Funeral Home.
Douthit conducted the services for the woman and has been on his own ever since, steadily growing the business. His first office was inside a small office park off North Point Boulevard. After that, he moved to Greenway Avenue, then to North Cherry Street, before settling at his current location on Brownsboro Road. He has six employees: Lowlita Douthit, Mejii Douthit, Trè Douthit, Teshauna Dubose, Julius Goodson and Derek Wilson.
He says funeral services today are a lot different than they were fifty or even twenty-five years ago. Then, he says, families considered it a sense of pride and honor to rent a limousine from the funeral home.
“Everything changes over time,” Douthit says. “I tell families that they do not have to follow a custom that is fifty years old just because their parents or grandparents did it. Times have changed and we have to change with the times.”
CREMATIONS ON RISE
Another trend that Douthit has experienced over the years is the increase among African Americans opting for cremation services rather than traditional burials. Douthit says he routinely performs about five cremations a month – more than he would perform in a year when he first started out seventeen years ago.
Whether due to increased costs of traditional interments or a younger generation foregoing long-held burial practices, the percentage of African American families opting for cremation of loved ones is growing, falling in step with the overall population.
All but taboo in the U.S. fifty years ago, the nation’s cremation rate has been increasing steadily. A half-century ago, nearly everyone who died in the U.S. was buried and only about 4 percent were cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America. Now, about half of all deaths are cremated, with cost being the biggest factor.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a cremation with a memorial service is $3,250 while the average traditional funeral is $7,045. Creation costs can be reduced, however, if a family chooses so-called direct cremation in which no memorial service is held.
Douthit says cremations now encompass about 35 percent of his funeral services compared with about 4 percent in 2000. Douthit says that nearly half of his consultations eventually turn to concerns about money, and that people are looking for less expensive funeral alternatives. He says a family can save as much as $3,500 by choosing cremation over a traditional burial.
Another influence on the rise in cremations, according to the Cremation Association of North America, is the fact that families are more dispersed than in the past, making it more difficult for them to visit gravesites.
Douthit says he agrees that the increase in cremation relates to the traditional family plot having become anachronistic in today’s transient society and that cremation affords relatives and friends more time to gather from afar for a memorial service. He says that as people have become more mobile it also has become impractical to bury loved ones in hometowns from which they moved decades earlier.
“Years ago you grew up in one town, worked in one town, raised your family in one town, lived all of your life in one town,” he says. “Nowadays, you have a lot of people who live in one town for eighteen years, until they graduate high school. It’s not practical for them to be transported to their birthplace to have a traditional burial when they lived someplace else for more than three-fourths of their life.”
Douthit refers to his business as “funeral directors for the millennium.” Part of that service entails making in-home arrangements to remove the stress of relatives having to visit the funeral home during bereavement. Another benefit is that in-home arrangements reduce the overall service charge, whether for creation or traditional burial. He also provides the family a block of time for viewing, typically from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“While it does lower the costs, the main reason we do in-home arrangements is that people are more comfortable in their homes,” he says. “We are concerned, considerate and compassionate to every family we serve.”
Although the number of cremations he directs has significantly increased and the sales of crematories are growing steadily, Douthit says he has no intentions of purchasing one. He feels owning a crematory would undermine his “no-frills” approach as a funeral director that helps ease costs to families.
“We’re not open seven days a week, eight hours a day,” he says. “If I were to keep those hours I would have to pay someone for being there and then pass that cost on to the client. I refuse to do that. We have visiting hours for grieving families. We’re with them during those hours providing for their comfort.”
LOYALTY TO ALMA MATERS
In addition to operating a successful business, Douthit also finds time to support two of his dearest passions: his alma maters of John W. Paisley High School in Winston-Salem and North Carolina A&T State University.
He is a member of the graduating class of 1962 from Paisley, one of the four original black high schools in Winston-Salem that is now known as Paisley IB Magnet School.
Douthit is a charter member of the Paisley High School National Alumni Association that was formed in 1995 with the focus of putting on social activities surrounding the “big four” original black high schools.
Douthit, who graduated from N.C. A&T in January 1967, says the success of the big four reunion has led the Paisley alumni association to the much broader focus of community leadership and maintaining the legacy of the original African American high schools in the city.
“We must be beacons in the community in order to gain all of the fruits of labor from the seeds that have been planted in the past,” he says.