God’s Plan: Honoring the Life & Legacy of Dr. O’Neil D. Swanson

Dr. O’Neil D. Swanson, military veteran, businessman, philanthropist, husband, doting father and grandfather, and founder of Swanson Funeral Home, passed away on March 27, 2020, in Detroit. He was 86 years old.

As the founder of Swanson Funeral Home, he was a beacon of compassion, helping numerous families navigate one of the toughest times in their life —burying a loved one.

Be it music icons like Aretha Franklin and David Ruffin, or civil rights giants like Rosa Parks, John Conyers and Damon J. Keith, or everyday people like my husband’s grandmother Dorothy Ann Massey or my mother-in-law Dakota Miller, Mr. Swanson provided the same exceptional level of service and concern.

Swanson was active in numerous businesses, cultural and social organizations and his achievements have been recognized by many, including Shaw College in Detroit and Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, both of whom conferred honorary Doctoral Degrees.

O’Neil D. Swanson meant so much to a lot of people and he will be greatly missed. He was a man of great esteem, class and faith; And It was his faith that brought him from the long nights and cold winters of Alaska to the Motor City.

The driving force behind Swanson Funeral Home, he arose from humble beginnings in Birmingham, Ala., utilizing education as an anchor to success. From Birmingham, Mr. Swanson moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he graduated as a member of the National Honor Society from Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School. In 1953, he graduated from Central State University, and from 1953 through 1955 served the United States as a member of the military, receiving an honorable discharge with the rank of First Lieutenant.

After serving in the military, Swanson decided he wanted to impact lives beyond his own. Earlier this year, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Swanson when we honored him as a Living Legend in the ninth edition of Who’s Who In Black Detroit. The following are excerpts from that interview.

“Divine order.” These words have guided the life and work of O’Neil D. Swanson for as long as he could remember.

“I didn’t choose to become a mortician,” Swanson said in his interview. “This was a celestial order from God.” Swanson initially planned to be a medical doctor and was relentlessly pursing that dream. However, his vision morphed after moving to Anchorage, Alaska, in the 1950s. “It was dark for 20 hours in the winter and light for four hours in the spring-summer,” he recalled, “This gave me time to think about my next move in life.”

Swanson continued his education at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, graduating cum laude in 1956, and that same year he passed the National Conference of Funeral Services Examiners Board.

In 1958, he founded Swanson Funeral Home, Inc. in Detroit, Mich.

“I started Swanson Funeral Home during the last Sunday in March of 1958. The first few years were rough, but God held me and kept me going in the business. I must thank Him for that.”

Kept the business going is a modest understatement.

For over 60 years, Swanson Funeral Home has served its community and handled the funeral arrangements for several prominent and historical figures becoming known for servicing their clientele with dignity and class.

For someone who wasn’t “planted” here, O’Neil D. Swanson’s roots grew deep into the soil of Detroit.

A true community leader he touched the lives of many with a thoughtful word or kind gesture to let you know that you were valued and appreciated. For as long as anyone can remember Swanson often went beyond the role of a typical businessman, hosting charitable events to provide the Detroit community with food, coats and toys at Christmas time.  He would even provide free caskets to families in need.

As Swanson Funeral Home grew and prospered, he established the Swanson Foundation to fulfill a responsibility to the community by providing scholarships for the less fortunate and to aid other underserved areas of the community.

His Classic Car Show, held at his Grand Boulevard location, was the talk of the neighborhood. Crowds of men, women and children would gather to see the shiny cars on display and many took great delight in seeing the Swanson Funeral Home classic hearse.

A proud father, Mr. Swanson raised his children Linda Swanson, O’Neil D. Swanson II and Kim Thomas neé Swanson to be good stewards in the community. Oftentimes you could find him and his children giving back to those in need.

Swanson’s children now run the business, making sure the community receives exceptional service. “I have amazing children,” he said. “I told them they could go off and do what makes them happy, but they decided to go into the mortuary business. I didn’t decide for them at all. They started working under me, and now I work for them. They handle all day-to-day operations for Swanson Funeral Home.”

In addition to his funeral service business, he owned the Hotel St. Regis where he hosted his staff Christmas parties and other prominent events. Swanson also sat on the board of Real Times Media. Hiram E. Jackson, CEO of Real Times Media, remembers Swanson as a friend and mentor.

“For more than 60 years, O’Neil provided a refuge for families across Detroit in their darkest hours,” said Jackson. “He was a compassionate man whose level of commitment to service of others was at times awe-inspiring. But O’Neil’s love and passion for Detroit extended far beyond the parlors of his funeral home, as he was an active servant in many ways. He was a spirited leader with a passion for black businesses. He was a giver in ways that many will never know.”

So often many people worry so much about dying they forget to live. That cannot be said about Mr. Swanson. He was a faithful Christian, who understood that death is a part of life. It is inevitable. And as such, Swanson believed it was important to focus on life and making the most of your time here so that when you pass on to the next part of your journey you walk in the light of the Lord.

“God is my everything. He’s the reason why my life has turned out this way, and I thank Him every day for that. For me, I know there’s another dimension after this. I’m excited to be with Him whenever he’s ready for me to come.”

Rest in Peace, Mr. Swanson. It has truly been an honor.

This article contains excerpts from Andre Ellington’s article, “God Gets the Credit”.

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