Sam Walton founded Walmart in Arkansas in 1962 and the company is still majority-owned by the Walton family today. Henry Ford built his first car in Detroit in 1903 and his great-grandson, William Clay Ford Jr., is the current executive chairman. James H. Cole III founded the James H. Cole Home for Funerals in 1919 in Black Bottom Detroit and it is still being operated by his granddaughter, Karla M. Cole-Green and her two sons Antonio and Brice Green.
Karla Cole’s father, James H. Cole IV (1928-1991), took over the James H. Cole Home for Funerals in 1970 when his father, James H. Cole III (1894-1970) passed away. When her father passed away in 1991, the family business was then placed on her shoulders and through her leadership, the business continued to grow and strengthen its place as Detroit’s landmark funeral parlor.
“I got into the business just from being a daddy’s girl, pretty much,” Cole laughed, as she sat at her desk. “I had to take over and when the boys were old enough, they joined me.”
Cole is the youngest daughter of James H. Cole IV and she began working at the funeral home in 1975. She graduated from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science and became a licensed mortician in 1980. She said it was destined for her to continue what her grandfather and father built. And when her dad began to have heart problems, she wanted to begin the transition of taking over the family business as quickly as possible to take some of the pressure off of him.
“Even almost on his death bed, he said he hated to leave me with all this pressure. But my dad didn’t give me any breaks,” said Cole, who is the president of the company. “He brought me from the bottom on up. I had to start working in the prep room and going out to the services every day. He worked me hard and taught me well.”
Cole said the hardest part about running the oldest black-owned funeral home in Detroit was being away from her family, especially her two children. And to this day, she said she still works long days to ensure her sons are able to spend time with their families and not at the family business.
“I spell retirement, G-R-A-V-E,” Cole laughed.
Cole said the best thing about owning the James H. Cole Home for Funerals is being able to pass down a legacy.
Her oldest son, Antonio Green, received his undergraduate degree from Bowling Green State University in 2005 and like his mother, he earned his license of Mortuary Science from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science in 2006. Having his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather as prominent undertakers in Detroit, Green said he felt no pressure to continue in their line of work.
“I always knew I would be a part of the business,” said Green, who is a director within the business. “But I always said I would do something else and help the family business out part-time. But as I went through college and matured, it was a natural progression into me joining the business.”
Green, 36, said the only pressure from being a descendant of James H. Cole III is continuing the service of excellence his family has provided to Detroiters over the last 100 years. But with his mother and younger brother by his side, the brand is still well-respected among Detroiters.
“With a family business, you know everybody is as dedicated as you are,” Green said. “It would be different in a co-worker situation or scenario, not knowing their true dedication sometimes, but, here, it’s our name. And that’s how we service other families: as a family.”
Brice Green is the baby boy. He began working for the company in 2007 as the headstone counselor. By launching this venture, it initiated a new service to the family’s business. He finished his Pre-Mortuary Science studies at Eastern Michigan University, then followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, James H. Cole IV, by graduating from Wayne State University’s School of Mortuary Science in 2013.
“It was a toss-up for me,” said Green, on whether he would turn to the family business. “I was either going to come down to the funeral home to help mom out or I was going to be a FBI sharp-shooter. But, as I grew up, I realized what was more important. There was no way I wanted it to end with my mother.”
Antonio and Brice Green are both married, and both have two children, with Antonio and his wife expecting a third one very soon. And while their children are still young, who knows if they will be the next to carry the James H. Cole Home for Funerals to see another 100 years in business.
“I plan on doing the same thing as my mom did, letting us choose our own career paths,” said Green, who is 34. “Whatever makes them happy in life is what I’ll support, whether that ends up being a part of the funeral business or working for NASA.”
To mark its centennial, the James H. Cole Home for Funerals will have several events throughout the year, including a Legacy Breakfast at the Northwest Activities Center April 18, a family festival July 21 at the West Grand Boulevard location, and a gala at the Detroit Roostertail September 14.