The grieving mother had a special request for her baby’s hair.
So Margaret Brooks, a mother of five boys herself, recounted the request like a prayer and gently started braiding so that 2-year-old Le’Vonte King Jason Jones would have four small plaits for his final farewell in the morning.
“He looked like an angel — perfect,” Brooks said, recalling his slim necklace and crisp white shirt, buttoned over the bullet wound that killed him the week before.
Just hours earlier, she had put the final touches on the body of Philando Castile, a school cook shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights.
For 75 years, families have brought their loved ones here, to Brooks Funeral Home in St. Paul — the oldest surviving black funeral home in the state. They entrust the latest generation, Brooks and her husband, George Brooks III, with orchestrating the meticulous details that bestow a final sense of dignity upon the dead, a service of historical importance in the black community.
It’s a role that’s taken center stage in recent weeks, as certain deaths — and burials — have been recorded, live-streamed and made public, viewed online around the world.
But for the Brooks family, it’s been a summer of doing what they’ve always done: helping families memorialize their deceased in ways the grieving see fit.
“Funeral homes are for the living,” George Brooks said, “and for a family to feel, if at all possible, that they had the service they wanted.”
Many of the services over the years have come after deaths without dignity — shots fired into the side of a minivan. Gunfire during a traffic stop. A house fire that left three children so burned their small caskets had to remain closed at the funeral. Details, ceremony and ritual can restore a sense of respect and honor, families say.
Rooted in history
At Castile’s funeral, a horse-drawn carriage and white casket carried the 32-year-old’s body to a stately — and deeply spiritual — cathedral service. It was all part of his mother Valerie Castile’s vision for the day, relatives said.
“She wanted her son’s homegoing to be fit for a king,” said his uncle, Clarence Castile. “It was.”
Regal touches also adorned the baby’s funeral. The same horse pulled Le’Vonte’s small body to the church and then the cemetery. At the service celebrating his life, stuffed animals and a toy truck, provided by the Brooks family, perched atop the casket.
“Brooks Funeral Home has been the catalyst for the black community to have an honorable and dignified homegoing celebration for loved ones that we’ve lost in the Twin Cities and beyond,” said the Rev. Danny Givens, a cousin of the baby’s mother, who oversaw his funeral service.
The ceremony associated with contemporary black funerals is rooted in history and tradition.
For many African-Americans, death has always been tied to freedom and celebration, said Carol Williams, executive director of the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, the country’s largest black funeral home group. The connection traces back to slavery, with death representing a return to Africa, she said, so many use the term “homegoing” to describe the service.
“Now there’s more of a religious tone to it — going home to be with God,” Williams said.
For these and other reasons, black funeral homes have profound importance in the community, said Karla F.C. Holloway, a professor of English, law and African-American studies at Duke University.
“What some people would see as excess,” Holloway said, “we see as, ‘If you’re going to watch, watch us do for our loved ones the very best we can do — at least in death what we could not do in life.’ ”
Historically, black funerals have also offered mourners the chance to protest oppression and often-untimely death through statements of activism — from Emmett Till’s open casket to the raised fists at Castile’s funeral.
“The raised fists were a more vigorous and prominent form of protest but absolutely tied to what Emmett Till’s mother did for her son,” Holloway said. “It says, ‘See what they have done.’ ”
But the Brooks family rarely considers the politics of the funerals they plan. What concerns them more is carrying on the funeral home’s legacy of compassion in the community.
Members of this community say they couldn’t be more proud of how the funeral home conducted itself on a national stage.
“It made me feel proud as an African-American man, as a black pastor and as a black community leader,” said the Rev. Runney Patterson of New Hope Baptist Church, who has worked with the funeral home for 12 years.
During a recent worship service at Progressive Baptist Church in St. Paul, fellow parishioners approached Margaret Brooks to hug her and commend her family. The congregation also honored Brooks Funeral Home during the service.
For George Brooks, the funeral home derives its pride less from recent events and more from a well-known spirit of empathy first established by his father and grandfather.
“My father was most proud of the fact that he had never turned a family away,” he said.
With help from their five sons, Brooks and his wife organize more than 100 funerals annually, with an uptick in recent years. The overall increase coincides with the persistent death of young people, who account for about 15 to 20 percent of their funerals, he said.
Young or old, rich or poor, every family deserves a service, his wife added.
“When you come into my funeral home, it’s like you’re coming into my house,” said Margaret Brooks, who often provides food to families during meetings.
‘The right thing to do’
Grieving families recall her motherly comfort and her husband’s fatherly attention to detail.
At the funerals, George Brooks steps carefully from one task to the next. He folds and refolds the pleats of an American flag on the casket. He makes sure the clothes of the deceased are immaculate, tugging a collar, adjusting a sleeve. Then, he slips away from notice, taking a seat in a back church pew.
Margaret Brooks is everywhere — giving hugs, patting backs, passing out tissues and speaking with mourners about how they knew the deceased. “Are you all right?” she asks. “Was this your relative?”
After a homegoing service on a recent morning, the pair left the church and hustled back to the funeral home.
A mother had called about her 19-year-old son, and the family was driving in from an hour away. They said in advance they had little to spend.
“But they’ll have a service,” Margaret Brooks said. “It’s the right thing to do. We have to do it.”