Morris Funeral Cottage celebrated 75 years in the funeral home business this year. “Service for all, within the means of all,” has been the company’s motto for three quarters of a century.
The Diamond Anniversary Celebration 1936-2011, honored the success of four generations. Morris Funeral Cottage is a family-owned business and is still housed at 284 Second Street in Cheraw, where the original white frame house once stood.
“Our success and very existence is a testament to the support of our community, our clients and our suppliers,” said David Brooks, fourth generation owner.
Joseph H. W. Morris Jr. opened Morris Funeral Cottage Inc. in 1936, the same year he graduated from Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
His father, Joseph H.W. Morris Sr., had been in the funeral business since 1912, as a partner of Johnson, Bradley and Morris Funeral Home in Columbia. Two years later Morris Sr., affectionately known as “Daddy Joe,” moved to Bennettsville and established Morris Funeral Home there. He was the very first licensed African-American embalmer and funeral director in Marlboro County.
When “Daddy Joe” died in 1980, at age 96, he was the oldest living licensed mortician in South Carolina.
In 1938 Morris Jr. earned his degree from Gupton-Jones School of Mortuary Science in Nashville, Tenn. The following summer he married Esther Virginia Rann. Their daughter, Jacqueline “Jackie” Morris Brooks, married Elmer D. Brooks in 1965.
In 1977, Elmer Brooks graduated from the University of the District of Columbia School of Mortuary Science. Two years later he became a licensed mortician and funeral director, and joined the family business. By 1983, Jackie Brooks had also become a funeral director.
It was not until 1999 that Jackie’s son, David Brooks, became a licensed mortician and the business held its first Memorial Candle Lighting Service at the Morris Chapel, honoring the memory of all loved ones who passed during the year.
“Just being able to survive in small business,” said Jackie Brooks, “is no small task. It takes a lot of hard work.”
The year 1996 marked the opening of St. Joseph’s Cemetery near Cheraw’s Municipal Airport, which is owned, operated and maintained by Morris Funeral Cottage as a major expansion in services.
In September of 2000, the remains of Robert L. Ford, Elmer D. Brooks, Esther and Joseph Morris were transferred from Foundry Hill Cemetery in Cheraw to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, the first interments.
Society has gone through many changes during the life of this business. In the early days of the company, funeral directors wore many different hats. They ran racially segregated ambulance services and acted as first responders. Accident victims had to be removed from the scene by ambulance services of their own racial background. Black ambulances couldn’t pick up white victims and white ambulances couldn’t pick up black victims.
Cheraw’s Rescue Squad was officially organized in 1959.
Several staff members at Morris Funeral Cottage, who have been around for many years, recall how things used to be.
“I remember it was 1965 when Mr. Morris bought the new hearse, the last one to have the red light and siren on it,” said Brack Melton, a member of the Morris Funeral Home staff since 1966.
“There was a little compartment where the light went that unzipped. You could reach in there and unhook the light and bring in down for the funerals,” said Melton.
“Back in the day,” said Melton, “when we were running the ambulance, if you got to the scene of an accident and it was a black person, we got them. If they were white, the white ambulance driver would take care of them.”
According to an article written and published online by Jim Crabtree, it was not until the late 1950 s that technology prompted the use of an ambulance. “Supplemental oxygen became the standard of care. Resuscitators, inhalators and Rico suction units became necessities,” said Crabtree.
Melton said he remembers when Morris turned over all the funeral home’s oxygen tanks and other medical equipment to the local rescue department. “I remember Mr. Morris saying he was glad to donate them,” said Melton.
Another thing that distinguishes modern business transactions from those of long ago are payment methods. Payments for funerals and other services were often bartered in trade with the harvest crops, said Jackie Brooks. “Many funerals were paid off in bushels of butter beans and sides of beef. In fact, the cost of funerals started as low as $20 for some services back in the 1940s.”
The legacy of the Morris Family in funeral service extends beyond the mere funeral rite. Each generation has taken pride in serving the community and country through membership in fraternities, sororities, Masonic orders and civil rights organizations, said Brooks.
“I don’t think the younger generations realize what an impact the Morris’ had on the community,” said Melton, during an era when many adults in the black community could not read. “If they got an official letter or something in the mail they couldn’t understand, they’d take it to Mr. Morris to explain.”
“That gained him a lot of respect,” said Melton. “They would have never went there if they hadn’t trusted him.”
“Community service is as important to us as providing outstanding customer service,” said Jackie Brooks.
According to Brooks, Morris Jr. shared his knowledge with apprentice funeral directors and embalmers seeking to enter the field. “Morris Funeral Cottage has been a valuable training ground for many funeral directors and embalmers over the last 40 years. Some of our past employees and apprentices have even gone on to open funeral homes of their own right here in Cheraw and throughout Chesterfield County,” said David Brooks.
“Although 2011 is a celebration of our 75 year past, we are very proud of our recent history,” said Jackie Brooks. Over the last 15 years, the firm has ventured into many other endeavors.
“Increased competition, changing markets, shifting customer loyalties and the loss of key personnel and loved ones,” said David Brooks, “forced us to look deep within and address how we could serve our loyal customers better.”
One pleasant surprise for the business, said Jackie Brooks, “has been our involvement with local churches.” Morris’ chapel on Second Street has hosted the launch of three area ministries over the last 10 years: Harvest of Blessings (Rev. John Ryals), the Charity Community Church of Christ (Rev. Darrin Coleman), and Stream of Deliverance (Rev. Cornell and Newatha McDonald). Each of these congregations have moved on to establish permanent locations around Cheraw.
“All the churches were nervous about conducting worship services in a funeral home when they began, but they left saying that the House of the Lord is wherever you find it. It’s ironic but appropriate that these church ministries have begun their journey here,” said Brooks. “After all, faith in things unseen has delivered us to this point in our history.”
— Staff Writer Karen Kissiah can be reached by calling 843-537-5261, ext. 229, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.