By J. K. Schmid, Special to the AFRO
Carlton C. Douglass knew he was going to be a part of Aretha Franklin’s August 31 funeral immediately.
“Almost the day that she passed away,” the Baltimore radio personality and owner of Carlton C. Douglass Funeral Service, PA, told the AFRO.
“My role was to lead everyone into the church, to assist in the seating and on the way out, I would lead all the procession, behind the casket, out.” he said.
Carlton C. Douglass, in his Pikesville home. (Photo by J. K. Schmid)
During the service, Douglass found himself among the Black elite, all guests of the Franklin family.
“Right in front of me was Tyler Perry, Cicely Tyson, Valerie Simpson, about two rows from me was Clive Davis, and the cast of “The Haves and the Have Nots”-that was one of favorite shows,” Douglass said.
Douglass, has had a decades-long career in service to the Baltimore community.
“I’m celebrating, this year, 46 years,” Douglass said. “I started in 1972, my first case was my brother-in-law.”
Out of town requests for his services began almost immediately. The first was Duke Ellington in 1974.
“That was a situation where my classmate, the late John Joyce of Harlem, New York, buried a lot of prominent musicians,” Douglass said. “He invited me to assist in that funeral, however, I was unable to because, at that time, I had just started the business here in Baltimore, and couldn’t get away.”
As the interview continued, Douglass demonstrated a flawless recall of the names of every family and business he worked with, celebrity or not.
“Around ‘85 or ‘86. and I, together, did Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and the last one we did together was Lionel Hampton, in New York,” Douglass said.
Swanson Funeral Home, the provider of Franklin’s funeral services, is another business with which Douglass has deep ties.
“About 28 years ago, the funeral home that handled Aretha Franklin, owned by Dr. O’Neil Swanson, of Swanson Funeral Home out of Detroit-O’Neil and I are like brothers from another mother-in fact, when my mother died in ‘91, he came here and assisted in directing my mother’s funeral,” Douglass said. “He stayed with me about three days after the services to make sure I was alright, he then got the call for David Ruffin, the lead singer of The Temptations, and invited me to be a part of assisting in that funeral in Detroit.”
Swanson provided his services for the funeral arrangements of Rosa Parks in 2005, a tour that crossed the country from Detroit, Michigan, to Montgomery, Alabama, to Washington, D.C. Douglass could not assist in Detroit, but was able to serve in D.C.
“I had the honor of seating Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry and Gayle King, at that time,” Douglass said.
Douglass, with Swanson, have also laid to rest some of the most eminent funeral directors across the country, including the most prominent Black funeral director in Kansas City, Missouri, Lawrence Jones, Sr.
“That gave me some experience on how to deal with funerals of caliber,” Douglass said.
Douglass’s rise coincided with his ascent to leadership of one of the United States’s oldest Black professional networks.
“I was the youngest mortician to be president of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, which is the largest organization of minority funeral directors in the world, in 1988, Douglass said. “So, I know just about every African-American funeral director in the country, at least those that come to the conventions.”
The association now has footing in three continents: North America, Europe and Africa; American interests extend all the way to the Caribbean.
While controversy swirls about the absence of Franklin’s will, the Swanson and Franklin families were quick in determining that they wanted The Queen of Soul sent off just so, “like a queen,” Douglass said.
Douglass commended the work of the one particular woman with the Swanson family.
“I have to say, that the daughter of the owner of the funeral home, Linda Swanson, who was an expert restorative artist, … she was able restore her look back to what Aretha looked like when she was smaller and did the makeup,” Douglass said. “And she also made, not went the store and bought, but she made all of the outfits that Aretha wore during the four days of her layout. She physically sowed and fitted the outfit to her. “
Photographers present at the funeral were prohibited from photographing Aretha’s face at the request of the family, but in state, in gold casket, wearing red dress and shoes, may prove as an iconic image imaginable.
“A lot of people were talking about how when she was laying in the casket, her legs were crossed,” Douglass said. “That was an idea came up with.”
While perhaps a perfect moment in the craft, funeral services, Black and White alike, are losing business to the increasingly popular arrangement of cremation. White-owned funeral services are also eager to make up the lost revenue by hiring all-Black staff to entice Black clients, Douglass says.
“Let me just say this, I would hope that the existence of the oldest Black business in America, which is the funeral business, would continue to thrive and exist, even after I’m gone,” Douglass said.