Robert Royster has seen just about everything in his 50 years as a funeral director, 28 of which has been with the James H. Cole Home for Funerals. He began working for the funeral home in September 1991, around the same time James H. Cole Jr. (1928-1991) unexpectedly passed away. In fact, he was offered the job at Cole’s funeral.
The James H. Cole Home for Funerals is celebrating its centennial this year and is currently operated by a third and fourth generation of Coles, president Karla M. Cole-Green and her two sons, Antonio and Brice Green.
“As I sat at his funeral, the old retirees had come, and I sat between them at the service and they posed the question as to whether I would like to come to James H. Cole to work,” said Royster, who is 72. “I was working at another firm at the time and contemplating leaving. The next day, we were at a second funeral and we sat together again. We had a discussion and it happened.
“When Mr. Cole passed, it left a void because Karla was in the street training newer directors and at his sudden death, she had to come in and they needed someone with experience to direct funerals. I eventually came over to see Karla and she hired me.”
James H. Cole Jr. initially wanted to hire Royster when he graduated from mortuary school, but they were not hiring at the time. He finally joined the Cole family business, with 21 years of experience already, responsible for directing services and promoting the Cole name, which is still his primary function to this day.
“I am not a person that wants to sit inside,” said Royster. “I like working with families and minsters. And I share with people, if I have five funerals a week at the same church, same cemetery, every day I can hear a different sermon, different song, meet different people, and take different routes to the cemetery. That’s always exciting.”
For Royster, working with bereaving families at the James H. Cole Home for Funerals is the best part of his job. But for Jackie Arthur, who has been driving limousines for the business for 14 years, it is not always the easiest job.
She recalled attending the funeral services of a child who was innocently murdered in Detroit a few years ago and how the deceased child’s mother would constantly walk up to the casket to talk to the child and took the death really hard during the service. Situations like that and the death of her own mother and father has allowed her to understand how to cope with bereaving families.
“I kind of let them lead,” Arthur said of families she meets riding in her limos. “Some people want to be left alone and quietness. But if they start talking to me, as we’re driving to the funeral service, then I’ll communicate back with them. I always try to give them my condolences first and let them know I am there for them.”
Unlike Royster and Arthur, who have worked for other funeral homes in Detroit, William Crawley, has been with the James H. Cole Home for Funerals more than half of his life. The 35-year-old turned a high school job shadowing project at Clintondale High School into a full-time career.
“The funeral homes in my area didn’t have enough business for me to do the proper training and get enough hours for my class,” said Crawley, who grew up in Clinton Township. “So, my mom said she knew of a funeral home that’s always busy. I came in one Saturday to meet them and began working the following week.”
Crawley began working at the funeral home just sweeping and cleaning up because he was only 16. He eventually graduated into driving company vehicles and attending services. Today, he is a funeral and family service coordinator, making sure all paperwork is signed, payments are up to date prior to the funeral service, and attending funeral services. He left briefly to work at a corporate law firm, but still worked on the weekends. He did not like his new job and wanted to return full-time with the funeral home. He had a talk with Karla Cole and she welcomed him back with open arms.
“She is very humble,” Crawley said. “You wouldn’t think that a person of her caliber would be so helpful. She’s a people person and if you can’t make it to work, Ms. Cole will call you and be at your front door or send a car to get you. Not many bosses will do that. She cares about us, she’s in our corner, she watched me grow up, and is like another mom.”
One of the younger employees of the James H. Cole Home for Funerals is 29-year-old India Ramsey. She is a mortician and funeral director and started in 2015 while as a student at Wayne State University majoring in Mortuary Science. The same school James H. Cole Jr. and Brice Green both graduated from. Her grandfather, Fred Ramsey, was a mortician and owner of Ramsey Memorial Chapel on Dexter. His dedication to serving families inspired her to pursue the family business and now she is a part of one the premiere black-owned family businesses in Detroit.
“Cole is a brand and a company that Detroit can be proud of,” said Ramsey. “I’m a native of Detroit and it was always known as a family-owned funeral home, dedicated to the community and serving. I’ve had loved ones that have been here and to see the compassion and care that they provide, that’s something that I knew I wanted to be a part of. James H. Cole is the best.”
The James H. Cole Home for Funerals prides itself on its service to families in need and those who provide it. They have employed the black community for 100 years, providing an adequate living for their employees. They also have one of the largest number of licensed funeral directors in the state on staff, with 13.
“We can’t be everywhere, so you have to have people who are like an extension of you and that’s what they are,” Karla Cole said of her employees. “Our drivers sometimes have more dealings with the families than we do because they are with them longer, at the chapel or cemetery. So you have to have capable help and we’ve been blessed to have that.”
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.