Just three weeks ago, they called a family meeting around the mahagony conference table at Manigault-Hurley Funeral Home.
With patriarch Tony Manigault Hurley too ill to attend, the three children and their mother had reached a sad conclusion: Columbia’s oldest family-owned funeral home, serving generations of African-Americans for more than 90 years, must close.
It was a business-like meeting.
It took about two hours to work out details and agree on a closing date — this Saturday.
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And when they spoke with their father, the three children sensed his relief that a decision had been made.
Only when the family parted, during the privacy of their drives home, did they allow themselves to cry.
“I feel that this business has been important to this community,” Alice Hurley, their 79-year-old mother, said this week from the funeral home, a stately edifice on Two Notch Road. “But I also feel there’s a time for everything, and our time is over.”
The socially prominent family and their proud business have deep roots in Columbia.
By 1923, tailor William Manigault had established the funeral home on Washington Street downtown. He lived on Wayne Street, just a few houses down from photographer Richard Samuel Roberts, who took portraits of the Manigaults and their business when it moved to Main Street.
Manigault’s was one of four black undertaking establishments operating in Columbia during the late 1920s, according to the Roberts photo book, “A True Likeness.” His shot of the storefront, in the 700 block of Main, shows a street lined with black Cadillacs.
Manigault expanded into caskets. During the Great Depression, his Congaree Casket Co. reportedly employed more black people than any other black-owned business in South Carolina.
His daughter, Annie Mae Manigault, would become one of the first women to be licensed as an embalmer in South Carolina.
She carried on the business for some 50 years before her son took it over.
Foreshadowing the sale
Tony Manigault Hurley, now 78, grew up in the family business, as did his three children – Brian Hurley, a local doctor; Kelly Hurley, a fundraiser in Charlotte; and Michelle Hurley, a family court judge here.
From childhood, their father taught them to take precise telephone messages, greet loved ones in mourning and drive a hearse as soon as they got their permits.
Business came first. Vacations were cut short.
Michelle Hurley, 44, the youngest of the three, remembers her first task as keeping possession of the smelling salts, should they be needed during a service – a jar filled with what she thought then were pink, green, blue and yellow gems.
“I would ride shotgun in the hearse,” she added.
Michelle was always the people person, her mother said. She got the credentials to take over the business before realizing she really wanted to go to law school. Her father harbored secret desires to be a lawyer, she said, so encouraged her.
Kelly, 49, was the detail-oriented daughter who could be counted on to do anything that needed doing. It was her job to make sure funeral programs were complete and accurate.
Brian, 51, took care of people’s physical needs, Alice Hurley said. He, too, went to funeral directors school before following his mother’s side of the family into medicine. His career decision, like his sister’s, foreshadowed the sale of the firm.
Kelly Hurley remembers a family assembly line of folding, stuffing and stamping hundreds of greeting cards sent by her father each Christmas and Mother’s Day.
“My dad always designed the Mother’s Day cards. He would put in a poem, a very meaningful message, about mothers,” she said. “People from all walks of life would come up and say, ‘Your card was the only card I received.’”
The funeral home moved to Two Notch Road in 1959, taking over a modest church building. Today, its manicured spot along the cluttered business corridor is marked by a classic sign in black and white.
The kids grew up next door.
Established in their chosen careers, it became clear a few years ago that the business would not carry on, but their father was never inclined to do anything but work.
“We don’t want to burden any of the three,” said their mother, a retired social worker active in the business, too. “They’ve all done their share.”
Calvernetta Williams, the historian for the S.C. Morticians Association, a professional organization for black-owned funeral homes, said there’s no question Manigault-Hurley is the oldest black-owned funeral home in Columbia. “And I hate to see them closing.”
Williams said the oldest black-owned funeral home in Charleston closed two or three years ago.
The industry is changing. A customer can buy a casket at Walmart and the funeral home is required to use it. Requests for less-expensive cremations have become more common.
Numbers kept by the state’s licensing office show 395 funeral establishments in 2012-13 compared with 519 in 2007-08, a drop of 124 businesses over five years. Many were likely white-owned funeral homes bought by corporations, said Sam Halls, president of the morticians association.
Michelle Hurley has made arrangements to donate the funeral home’s record books to South Caroliniana Library, records containing family histories that may not be found anywhere else.
Each page of Manigault-Hurley’s handwritten ledgers record a client’s birth date and place, occupation, address and cause of death. The records also make note of survivors, funeral arrangements, costs and burial sites.
“We have four generations of stuff” maintained by ancestors through the years, Brian Hurley said.
Here and there in the old books, margin notes show a customer’s family cleared the bill with payment of vegetables or livestock, Michelle Hurley said.
Already, she has gone through more recent records to identify 50 to 60 clients who established trust accounts to pre-pay their funerals. Now, they must choose another funeral home to conduct their services, she said.
Then there is the equipment to sell, from urns and caskets to four limousines. The building, at the corner of School House and Two Notch roads, to put on the market. One full-time and 10 part-time employees to bid farewell.
“The reality is starting to sink in,” Brian Hurley said, “and it is very emotional.”
Alice Hurley conducted her last funeral Tuesday, going by a checklist of more than 30 tasks so she wouldn’t overlook a single detail.
She’s not troubled by change, she said.
“My mantra is that nothing is forever,” she said, sitting behind the nameplate of Anthony Manigault Hurley, her husband of 54 years. “I’ve always seen my life in terms of stages, and each stage brings something to be enjoyed.”
It’s more important to her that the business close while it still has its reputation, she said, its good name.