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Undertakers' pockets impacted by murder drop?

BY KIMONE THOMPSON Features Editor — Sunday thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, June 05, 2011    

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WHEN Tommy Thompson and his Brite-Lite Funeral Services shot to fame in the early 2000s, the murder toll in Jamaica averaged 1,000 each year. By the middle of the decade, when the numbers gradually increased to upwards of 1,500, Brite-Lite had become a virtual household name, popular for its extravagant, showy ceremonies and long list of reputed don and gang leader/clientele.

The funerals of former Arnett Gardens don William 'Willie Haggart' Moore in 2001, former Clansman leader Donovan 'Bulbie' Bennett in 2005, and former One Order head honcho Andrew 'Bunman' Hope in 2006 were said to have cost millions of dollars each.

But those were the good days.

Thompson said that since late last year, when the police started announcing a consistent trending down of the murder figures, the undertaking business has been taking a battering.

"(Business) has gone down, maybe 40 per cent over maybe a six-month period because as you know the present commissioner has been doing a good job as it relates to the curtailing of murders and I must say, yes, it has affected the pockets of undertakers and there is no question about that; whether directly or indirectly, it has affected undertakers," he told the Sunday Observer.

"It definitely affects the funeral homes because once the murder rate goes down then it affects the earnings and everything that surrounds the funeral home... Let's say 100 people die in a week and then all of a sudden it cuts to 50, then you have less funerals and less intake of funds, that's what it comes down to," Thompson added.

The Brite-Lite head said a funeral home can gross over $10 million a year.

"For the year you can do anything over maybe 10 million, especially if the business is thriving. You can earn over that quite easily, because you can get four or five or six funerals for the month, let's say at $200,000," he said. Using four funerals per month, the total earnings, less expenses, would be $38.4 million for the year.

Even at rates of between $60,000 and $65,000 a funeral business can gross millions in any given year. If the parlour does three funerals per week, at $65,000 each, it can earn just over $10 million, minus expenses.

In January this year, the police reported that all major crimes -- murders, shooting, rape, carnal abuse, robbery, break-ins, and larceny -- declined by seven per cent in 2010, when compared to 2009. Murder itself, they said, decreased by 15 per cent, totalling 1428 in 2010, as against 1682 in 2009.

They have linked much of the reduction to the apprehending of former Tivoli Gardens 'don' Christopher 'Dudus' Coke who was extradited to the United States after a bloody police/military operation in West Kingston last May.

But undertakers like Thompson, who say that as Jamaicans they welcome news of a reduction in crime, can't ignore the effects on their bottom line.

Telbert Roberts of Roberts Funeral Home, which operates in St Ann and St Catherine, said he had more business up to January this year. He spoke from the point of view of being a government-contracted undertaker for St Catherine.

"I am one of the contractors for the Government, so from that end (the reduction in murders) affects me. Compared to November, December, January when murders were rampant, and moreso in the Spanish Town area, I was doing more cases for the Government," said Roberts.

On the other hand, president of the 15-member Funeral Directors Association Ferdinand Madden said his members were not experiencing any fallout from the drop in murders.

"I can safely speak on behalf of the members of the association that the drop in murders is not affecting our business. In fact, I can speak for all funeral homes because I don't know of any funeral home that survives from murder cases.

"I don't think it would affect us much because that's just one cause of death. It doesn't affect us much as how people think. If anything, it affects us in a positive way because we are all Jamaicans and we deserve to live free from murders."

Madden, whose Madden's Funeral Home handles cases for the Government, said he deals mostly with cases of natural and sudden death, death by accident, death by suspicious methods, for "No funeral parlour would want (murder) to be their core business".

"Natural causes like hypertension and cancer would be a larger piece of the pie," he told the Sunday Observer.

Over in Manchester, operator of Lyn's Funeral Services — which has branches in Mandeville and Christiana — Calvin Lyn, said the impact on his family-owned business has been negligible.

"It is likely because if you have more deceased persons, then it's more business, but we don't depend on murder cases for our business, " he said.

"Violent deaths don't even account for 10 per cent of our business. Deaths from illnesses such as sugar, diabetes, hypertension, etc, account for the vast majority of our cases," he added, pointing out that suicide, drowning and traffic accidents were also classified as violent deaths.

"So, no, it doesn't affect us adversely in the sense that we are in the funeral industry and we don't really wait for people to die violently or by sickness, but whether the murder rate increases or not does not mean that funeral homes do more business, " said Lyn.

"We, and I personally as a patriotic Jamaican, I am happy when crime is down and hope that we can eliminate it."

One reason he and his colleagues say the effect of the reduced murder figures has been barely noticeable is the increased competition in the field and an influx of untrained personnel. This situation, the undertakers said, was begging for the industry to be regulated.

Adding to the conversation, Joseph Cornwall Sr of House of Tranquillity, with branches in Portmore and downtown Kingston, said: "It wouldn't really affect us in any great way because our core business is sudden death and repatriation. We get four, five, six cases per month from overseas from countries like the USA, Canada, England.

"The numbers (earnings) will always go up because of the increase in prices and in the number of cases, but when

you consider the overhead expenses and the adjustment in funeral packages based on the financial situation of individual families, it doesn't necessarily mean that we're making all this money," he added.

Michael Jones, whose undertaking business is based in downtown Kingston, had a similar position.

"It's not affecting me because I don't depend on murders. I depend on the word of God. He is the one that is providing for me. I do mostly natural causes (of death). I don't like to deal with violent deaths and it's more work for me than the natural causes, which don't need autopsy. I do them if I get them, but even if they stop murder people, I will survive.

"Two-thirds of my cases are from natural causes, the rest is from accidents, homicides etc," said Jones.

And in Hague, Trelawny, operator of Reynolds Funeral Home, Howard Reynolds, said the decreased murder numbers have had no impact on his bottom line given that the cane farming area is relatively poor and has never had a high murder rate.

"Where we are based, we have a low murder rate, something you can count on one of yuh hand, so in terms of business it never fluctuate neither up nor down because of that low rate.

"Many people here don't have any money... we have a $65,000-package. We well want to move (up) from there, but people just don't have the money.

"We have had a cedar casket worth $450,000 for the past four or five years. People would like to get it, but they just don't have the money," Reynolds said.

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