Ever since MTV’s “The Real World” first aired in 1992, people have been fascinated by “reality based” television. I use that term loosely. Supposedly, these shows are unscripted but I believe that varies widely from show to show.

There’s even been a few about funeral homes. The first was probably A&E’s “Family Plots” in 2003 that covered a family-run funeral home in a San Diego suburb. It only lasted a few years but I thought it was done fairly tastefully. More recently, TLC introduced “Best Funeral Ever” about a Dallas-based funeral home and the over-the-top funerals they provide. That’s one I haven’t watched yet but I plan to TiVo it (as I do anything I want to watch these days to avoid commercials).

So I wasn’t surprised when I stumbled across a new show called “Funeral Boss” debuting on Discovery Fit & Health. I’m sure one of the first thoughts some people have is “Are you kidding me? How depressing that has to be, and creepy!”.

Naturally, my reaction was quite the opposite.

“Funeral Boss” follows the lives of the Harris family, led by the father, William (Bill) Harris, Sr. Their family-owned funeral home is located in St. Louis, Mo. Bill and Garnet’s (his wife) four oldest children work there. But the show does look beyond just funerals to highlight their personal lives.

Bill Harris, the Funeral Boss. Photo courtesy of Discovery Fit & Health.

Bill Harris is the Funeral Boss. Photo courtesy of Discovery Fit & Health.

The Harris family is African-American. I’ve always had a keen interest in black funeral traditions, such as homegoing celebrations. The history of African-American funeral service is a multi-faceted topic I plan to explore here very soon.

In previous blog posts, I’ve talked about how in the past, in the South, there were different cemeteries for blacks and whites. When I moved to Georgia in 1973, there were what people called “white funeral homes” and “black funeral homes”. Even in the post-integration era, this separation was very apparent. As a child ignorant of the Civil Rights movement at the time, it made no sense to me. While this is no longer the case, funeral service remains an industry still somewhat divided by color.

Amid society’s desire to encourage more diversity, this creates some interesting challenges for African-American funeral directors. Sara Marsden of US Funerals Online sums it up better than I can:

The question is, how does one either promote being a “black” funeral home, or locate one, in an era when mentioning “black” is not PC? Many African-American owned and operated funeral homes will openly acknowledge that they are a “black funeral home”, and obviously there are certain areas in the United States where it is expected that black funeral homes operate.

Like the Harris’ business, African-American funeral homes are often family owned and operated. The funeral director is usually a much respected person who is a leader in the church and community. In large urban areas, this is less common since traditional black churches tend to be bigger and the congregations more transient than in the past.

Bill, the Harris family patriarch, is a dynamic fellow in more ways than one. Not only does he have a lively personality, his snappy wardrobe is a sight to behold. But at the same time, you get a genuine sense that this man cares deeply about helping his clients because he already knows so many of them personally.

You might think a show about the funeral industry would be dreary but it isn’t. In the first episode, viewers meet the oldest son, William Jr., who is cleaning up his act after experiencing drug issues and a brief prison stint. He and middle brother, Windall, are given the task of transporting the deceased to the church and conducting the funeral service.

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Bill Harris and his son, Windall (left), comfort a mother at the funeral of her 19-year-old son. Photo courtesy of Discovery Fit & Health.

The hearse pulls up to the church but guess what? It’s the wrong church! This is made all the more comic by Windall’s admission that he plans to kept quiet about it to his father, knowing Bill would raise the roof if he knew. William Jr. takes it all in stride and comments, “The church is a block up the street, so it all worked out fine.”

“Funeral Boss” reminds me of a family at my old church who operates a funeral home. Mr. Mowell was, and still is, a much loved man in the community. He is retired now, and his son, David, runs the business. But back in the day, you never knew when Mister C.J. would be paged to answer a death call. One minute he might be laughing with you over cheese straws at a party in the fellowship hall, the next he’d be gone.

That’s something you learn from “Funeral Boss” that transcends race and time. Running a funeral home is never a nine to five job. You don’t turn it off at the end of the day because you may be summoned to pick up a body at at 2 a.m. In many ways, it’s a calling. You have to have a great deal of compassion and patience to help people at one of the most difficult times in their lives.

Not everyone has that unique ability. Those that do, like the Harris and Mowell families, have a special place in this world.

That’s a reality I can take comfort in.

To get a glimpse of “Funeral Boss”, here’s a clip.

To read more about the Harris family and the show, check this out.

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