GR’s oldest operating Black-owned business persevered through prejudice

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In just a couple of years, Brown’s Funeral Home will mark 100 years of helping families in Grand Rapids say farewell to their loved ones.

Brown’s Funeral Home owner Nathaniel Moody, also a Grand Rapid city commissioner, has his eye on the future of his business, but he’s not leaving the past behind.

“This is the oldest African American Black-owned business in Grand Rapids, started in 1925 by Mr. Milo M. Brown,” Moody said.

Moody took over Brown’s Funeral Home just a few years ago. As the business nears the century milestone, he is the funeral home’s third owner. He started working here in the mid-1970s and later was an apprentice under Brown.

“I started cutting the grass here; cutting the grass and washing windows and helping out with funerals, dressing the casket,” Moody recalled.

Providing a service to his neighbors during some of the most difficult days of their lives in a point of pride for Moody. It an example of how he’s following Brown’s legacy.

“(Brown’s) philosophy was he wanted this funeral home to be a funeral home that would excel in beauty and the service would cost less,” Moody said.

Brown attended Worsham College of Mortuary Science near Chicago with all white classmates and graduated at the top of his class.

When he returned to Grand Rapids, the prejudices of the day stood in his path as he started and then built his business.

“There was a time in life where Mr. Brown could not buy a casket from certain casket companies in those days. There was a time where he could not use cemeteries in certain areas in those days. So if we really want to talk about history, we’ve come a long way in terms of where we used to be, so those are celebratory things,” Moody said.

On the day News 8 visited Brown’s funeral home, there was a visitation in the chapel for the recently departed Thelma Woods. The mood was festive as family and friends gathered and greeted each other. Her son said it was an honor to have News 8 there on the day his mother was going home.

“A lot of our funerals are celebratory because we are a race of people who are connected and intertwined with one another in terms of our relationships with one another and we see death as a celebration. Even though it is emotional, we still celebrate a person who lived,” Moody said.

Moody is looking ahead to future celebrations of life by planning the funeral home’s next chapter. The building on Jefferson Avenue SE is two houses that were joined together years ago. Plans are underway now for a new Brown’s Funeral Home to be built in the same spot so the legacy can continue.

A rendering of the planned redesign for Brown's Funeral Home. (February 2022)
A rendering of the planned redesign for Brown’s Funeral Home. (February 2022)

“We find ourselves in a position where we’re still going strong but needed changes must be made,” Moody said. “We’re continuing a legacy that Mr. Brown had to the community. That’s the purpose of us wanting to build a new funeral home, to make sure that we give back to the community and give them the opportunity that this place will be here. There will be longevity before it ever leaves.”

Moody said aside from his pride of being a Black-owned business, Brown’s has always tried to distance itself from the term “Black funeral home.” He said it holds funerals for people of all different races and backgrounds and is in business to serve the entire community.