A Business They’re Dying to Get Into – Black Undertakers in New Orleans

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From left to right, first row: Zenobia E. Lockett (Lockett Federal Funeral Home); Gertrude Geddes-Willis (Geddes & Moss/G. G. Willis); Elmira Strudwick (Strudwick Funeral Home); Mrs. George Llopis (Carr-Llopis); Erma Henderson Gibbs (Murray Henderson); Julia Blandin (Blandin); Doris Millaud Rhodes (Rhodes); Emile Labat (Labat).

Second row: W L. Powell; Duplain W. Rhodes (Rhodes); Fate Strudwick (Strudwick Funeral Home); Christopher C. Verrett (Crescent Undertaking & Embalming Company); Charles Henderson (Murray Henderson); Emanuel F. Llopis (Carr-Llopis); Clennen L. Dennis (Dennis); Joseph P. Geddes (Jos. P. Geddes); George Llopis (Carr-Llopis).

 

The Crescent City has a long history of black professionals who have been engaged in the mortuary profession. As early as 1909, representatives from the various companies gathered to form the New Orleans Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association – Colored, which was chartered on May 3 of that year before notary Edward A. Parsons. The charter members of the Association were Duplain Rhodes, Oscar L. Muh, Widow James H. Taylor, Charles Medley, Henry Mansion, Emile Labat, Mandeville LeBlanc, Thomas A. Carr, Dan H. Henderson, and Clement J. Geddes. The New Orleans Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association – Colored was renamed the Crescent City Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association on 2 August 1938.

A similar organization on the state level, the Louisiana Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association was organized in 1925. In 1956, it was renamed the Association of Funeral Directors and Embalmers of the State of Louisiana. Pictured above are the members of the Crescent City Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association who served as a committee to prepare for the Thirteenth Annual Convention of the state association, which met in New Orleans from April 24 to 26, 1938. The site of the convention was Economy Hall, where the second floor was used for the sessions and the first floor for displays of products by colored casket manufacturers and mortuary suppliers. Delegates from across the state gathered to attend the opening service held at Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal Church and to participate in the sessions led by L. M. Johnson of Baton Rouge, President, and recorded by C. L. Dennis of New Orleans, Secretary.

Perhaps the first of these successful colored undertakers was Pierre Casanave, a native of Port-au-Prince, who in the 1850s and 1860s was lauded for the pomp of the funerals he provided. He was also noted for his preciously guarded formula for preserving bodies, during a time when embalming was a burgeoning science. His mortuary was located at Bourbon and St. Louis streets. After Casanave died in 1866, his sons Pierre Casanave, Jr. and Gardane Casanave ran the funeral home into the 1880s.

The year following Casanave’s death, another Sainte-Domingue émigré named Pierre Boyer began a successful mortuary business, which was inherited by his widowed daughter-in-law, the Widow Albert P. Boyer. The Widow Boyer later took on James H. Taylor as a manager and partner in the business, renaming it the Boyer & Taylor Company. In the 1910s, the firm’s top employees Raoul J. Llopis and Thomas A. Carr purchased the business and gave it the name Carr-Llopis. The Carr-Llopis firm was well-known and existed into the 1970s.

In 1887, Alcée Labat and Joseph Ray also began an undertaking business in the Downtown section of the city, which bore the name Labat & Ray. The business was later inherited by Alcee’s son, Emile Labat, Sr., whose descendants operate it to the present day under the name of Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home.

In 1899, Oscar L. Muh and Charles Medley began an undertaking business, Medley & Muh, which lasted a brief time until 1905. Charles Medley later joined the staff of the Boyer & Taylor Company.

Finally in 1909, John Blandin and Mandeville LeBlanc formed the Blandin-LeBlanc Company. John Blandin had previously been an employee of the partnership of Labat & Ray. Mandeville LeBlanc died without descendants in 1920. John Blandin became sole proprietor of the funeral home, which was later inherited by his daughters, who operated it under the name Blandin Undertaking Company.

Across town in the Uptown section, George D. Geddes opened a mortuary business on Erato Street in 1876. This business continued until his death, when it was inherited by his son, Joseph P. Geddes. Another of his sons, Clement J. Geddes began a funeral home with Arnold L. Moss, which was called Geddes & Moss. This company continues to the present day under the name Gertrude Geddes-Willis Funeral Home, the name denoting Clement Geddes’ widow, who reorganized the company under her own name in the 1940s.

In 1884, according to his descendants, Duplain W. Rhodes, Sr., who was reared in Thibodaux, Louisiana, opened a drayage business Uptown, which he later converted into an undertaking business in the 1890s. His grandchildren continue to operate the Rhodes Funeral Home company to the present day.

In 1909, Murray Henderson and his brother Daniel Henderson established a mortuary business in across the Mississippi River on Diana Street in Algiers. In 1913, they located the business on Teche Street where it continues to thrive.

In 1930, Clennen L. Dennis founded the Dennis Mortuary Service on Eagle Street in the Hollygrove neighborhood. He later moved the business to Louisiana Avenue. His widowed daughter-in-law and her family continue to operate the Dennis Mortuary in that location to the present.

Sources: Louisiana Weekly, 23 April 1938, 5; Louisiana Weekly, 30 April 1938, 1-2; Soards’ Directories, New Orleans; Notarial Acts of Edward Parsons, 3 May 1909, New Orleans Notarial Archives.

J.C.L.H.

5 thoughts on “A Business They’re Dying to Get Into – Black Undertakers in New Orleans

  1. Thank you for such valuable information! My great-great aunt Jenenevive D Gilbert Geddes Winfield Plunket was also an undertaker during the late 1880’s with her first husband Alexander Gilbert, from New Orleans. They ran a successful funeral business in Beauregard Town in Baton Rouge. She was part of the Gilbert Funeral Home and my uncle started southern funeral home in east baton rouge.

  2. I am very honored to read about my grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. George Llopis, at Carr-Llopis Funeral Home, 1620 Dumaine St. My grandmother’s name was Geneva Llopis. She stands in the middle of the first row, dressed in white. My grandfather stands at the end of the second row, dressed in black. On my web site–www.wildtreme.com–there is a photo of my grandfather and Carr-Llopis Funeral Home. Thank you, CreoleGen and Ms. S. Smith of the Creole Society, for this beautiful article. ~ Big Chief Andrew “Drew” Justin, Wild Treme Indians

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