South City

After Life Mortuary Services is Memphis' first funeral home owned by Black women

Mortuary services have traditionally been a male-dominated industry. In fact, according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 74 percent of morticians and funeral directors are men. That may be about to change, however, as more and more women are pursuing the profession.  Memphis, too, has seen a buck in the historical trend with its first female owners and operators of a funeral home.

“We are the first African American women to open, own and operate a funeral home in the city,” said Madeline Lyles who co-owns of After Life Mortuary with Dana Taylor.
 

Madeline Lyles opens a truck After Life Mortuary Services uses to transport bodies to the South Memphis facility. (Renier Otto)

The change is occurring nationwide. In 2017, nearly 65 percent of graduates from funeral director programs in the United States were female, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, which is the highest number recorded by the board.

Opened October of last year at 2207 S. Lauderdale Street, After Life Mortuary Services (ALMS) offers a wide range of services such as embalming, funeral directing and funeral service. In addition to international shipping and receiving of human remains, they also provide cremation services, as well as insurance options for individuals of any age.

“We also offer education to the community. We are working to bridge the gap between families and funeral homes to better prepare individuals and families ... so they can alleviate a lot of the stress that they go through in the funeral arrangement process,” said Lyles.

A schedule detailing embalming and body transportation at After Life Mortuary Services. (Renier Otto)

Along with personal appointments, Lyles and Taylor hold forums for older individuals about the legalities and preparations for funeral services, like insurance, living wills, and communicating with families to reduce the stress of dealing with a loved one’s death. The pair also plan on holding camps for teenagers ages 13 to 18 this summer who have an interest in the funeral services.

Funeral costs can contribute to the stress of an already difficult situation.  The duo believes that their ability to provide nearly all necessary services helps keep those costs down.

“With us being the morticians and funeral directors, as well as the owners, we have the advantage of offering more economical services to families,” said Lyles.

Both have worked in the industry for over a decade for various funeral homes in the area. Additionally, the pair have also worked as trade embalmers providing embalming services as well as makeup and dressing for the body on a contract basis.
 

The embalming room at After Life Mortuary Services where Madeline Lyles and Dana Taylor prepare bodies for burial or cremation. (Renier Otto)

“We met around 2009. We were working together at the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center here in Memphis. We met back up when we worked at a funeral home together. Both of us have a lot of years of experience in the industry,” said Taylor.

Lyles already had a plan in motion and reached out to Taylor to open their own mortuary business. They shared common ideas and goals for their startup that took about three years to accomplish.

So far, the business is still finding its place in the community. Clients have ranged from individuals to families. Their work as trade embalmers has helped fund operations as word of their business grows. A current client of ALMS, as well as former employer of both Lyles and Taylor, is Jerry Harrison, owner of Harrison's Memorial Chapel. While Harrison’s is a full-service funeral home, ALMS steps in when his facility is at capacity.
 

Madeline Lyles, co-owner of After Life Mortuary Services. (Renier Otto)

“I know their work skills. I highly trust them. They are just very detailed as far as what they do. They know the industry well,” said Harrison. “There have been times where we are swamped, and we need to call somebody to go pick up a body for us; even embalm a body. They have been there for us to do that.”

Harrison took over his family’s business. It operated under the name Harrison's Funeral Home Orange Mound Chapel since 1923 until relocating to South Memphis in 2014. A fourth-generation funeral home owner, he grew up watching his mother and aunt doing the same funeral services work as the men in his family, but never as owners. For Harrison, women fill a role that many men struggle with and add a soft touch needed in a time of grief.

“This was a male-dominated industry at first. It has changed a little bit. Women give that soft touch that is needed in the industry. My father, Charles Harrison, would always say, ‘The industry needs women to give that soft touch. Some men just can’t handle certain things that come with the passing of someone,’” said Harrison, giving the of a loss of a baby or a woman losing her husband as examples.

“They may not hit the same buttons like a woman would do. I’ve witnessed that before, with Madeline [Lyles], and of course with my mother.”
 

The embalming room at After Life Mortuary Services where Madeline Lyles and Dana Taylor prepare bodies for burial or cremation. (Renier Otto)

Lyles and Taylor are now in marketing mode to promote the business.

“We have made some TV appearances, and we are just using social media to reach out to the community. We have been getting calls,” said Lyles.

Many of the calls are to set up appointments to talk about insurance options and pre-planning funeral services.

Since opening, they have received feedback from people who have found inspiration by their story.

“We have gotten a lot of messages and phone calls ... different people reaching out especially young women. Some have said ‘I wanted to be a mortician and my parents talked me out of it, or said it was weird, but now that I see you all on Facebook, smiling and you love what you do…’ They get inspired. Some have actually enrolled in mortuary schools,” said Taylor.

Dana Taylor, co-owner of After Life Mortuary Services. (Renier Otto)

In January 2019, Southwest Tennessee Community College started offering an associate of applied science in funeral service education degree at its Whitehaven Center.

Going forward, Lyles and Taylor are looking into different programs and organizations available to entrepreneurs in Memphis, like small business incubators.

“We are definitely looking to expand. We’ve been looking at different options that may be available to us to receive that type of funding from city organizations,” said Lyles.

A planned expansion at their current location in South Memphis this summer involves adding on-site funerals.

 “As of right now we have funeral services at different churches or whatever venue they would like to have,” said Lyles.

While the business is relatively new, with plenty of work ahead to carve out space in the funeral home market in Memphis, the hurdles they face in the future are likely smaller than the ones that lay in the past.

“By us being in the industry so long we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs being a woman in the workplace, period. But especially being in a field that is male-dominated, we’ve had to overcome and persevere a lot of things that come with that. We are pursuing things that a lot of people probably didn’t think we were capable of,” reflected Taylor.

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