News & Events

Meet Luann Jones, dynamic Black owner of a Toronto funeral home

By ROYSON JAMESStar Columnist
Thursday, March 15, 2018

You may have heard that one of Toronto’s early Black settlers was likely the city’s first cabbie. Or that Blacks in the 1950s flocked to the railroad as porters — not because they loved train travel but because that’s where Black workers didn’t face a shut door. Or that thousands of Black women started arriving here in the late 1950s — because that’s who the government let in as immigrants.

But a Black funeral director?

[Luann Jones, funeral director and owner of Covenant Funeral Homes, inside Richmond Hill Pentecostal Church, where a visitation is underway on March 3, 2018. Jones has plans to expand Covenant across the GTA.]
Luann Jones, funeral director and owner of Covenant Funeral Homes, inside Richmond Hill Pentecostal Church, where a visitation is underway on March 3, 2018. Jones has plans to expand Covenant across the GTA.  (BERNARD WEIL /TORONTO STAR)

Correction. Make that, Black owner of a funeral home — because that’s what I discovered during Black history month. In Toronto, 2018.

She’s barely 5-foot-2, elegant in her navy blue and white uniform topped with silver gray and blue striped necktie, hair tightly braided, not a strand out of place, resting on top of an exquisitely disarming half smile as she welcomes the reporter into Covenant Funeral Homes, at the corner of Eglinton Ave. E. and Midland Ave.

Luann Jones is used to double takes from prospective clients she is about to engage face-to-face at a pre-funeral arrangement.

On the phone she’s undertaker nondescript — professional and proper, disclosing just so much without disguising anything, a hint of British lilt to leave one wondering.

Then they come in to make arrangements to bury a loved one and, ah, she is, oh, yes, Black.

“I researched it and there’s never been a Black funeral home in our country, in history,” Jones says. “So, I’m like the Harriet Tubman of funeral services. Others will come after me but that history can’t be changed. I’m the first.”

It’s not a boast; it’s delivered in mortician monotone, yet with a twinkle. Twenty-two years in the industry and Jones is nowhere near a dead end. Rather, she aims to expand Covenant into a series of funeral homes across the GTA.

Who’s to tell Jones she can’t. That’s what she heard and disregarded from those in the know in the industry.

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“You’ll never get in,” they told me. “Nobody gets in on the first try,” others said when she applied to the funeral services program at Humber College in 1997. The college gets 800 applicants, accepts 200 and graduates fewer than 150 then. And Jones was looking to enroll after being out of school and work for eight years.

Jones considered being an airline attendant but “didn’t make the height restrictions,” since relaxed.

When she submitted her application for funeral services at Humber she scanned the framed wall photos of the recent graduating classes. She had to go back five years to find someone who looked like her.

“Persistent as I am, I did get in on the first try. Out of the tribulations I have gone through — single mom, two sons, wanting something better for them, juggling school, parenting, waking up at 2 and 3 a.m. to do my studies . . . I made it.”

Side glances, quizzical looks and furrowed brows are regular responses to someone’s declaration that undertaker is a chosen career choice.

Jones is more than mortician. She is counsellor, mediator, baby sitter, medic, priest, neutralizer in the midst of family fights. “You have to pick people up off the floor when they pass out. I’ve done mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” she says. “For some directors they say this not my job, but I’m a Jill of all trades, and master of some.”

Rarely does someone talk about the dead with such, ah, respect and regard.

Some bodies arrive at her mortuary without having had a bath in months, Jones says. “I bathe them and it’s an honour and a privilege. Families have built a lifetime of relationships with the deceased and I get to serve them and look after their loved ones for a few hours. This is what I was called to do — and I absolutely love it.

“Each body gets my personal stamp of approval. They don’t go out if they don’t look right.”

Jones wasn’t finished.

“I’m a perfectionist. It’s all about the fine details” — the preparation of the body for final viewing. “This is the last time (families will) have the experience of seeing their loved ones. It must be pleasing and comforting.”

I almost wanted to observe her do a preparation — the bath, make up, dressing and presentation for final viewing. Readers with weak stomachs or cultural and childish fears and superstitions about the dead are probably feeling queasy about now. But I left Covenant, went home and told my wife I found the person I want to prepare my body for burial . . . in time, of course.

Strange, I know.

Jones’ parents left Guyana for England before landing in Toronto in 1977. They lived in the Annex, Oakwood and Vaughan Rd. and then in Mississauga. Young Luann was a high school sprinter, lifted weights in the off season and was working for a graphic arts company when an accident forced her to reboot her life.

“I told God if he would bless me I would be a blessing to others. It was my covenant.”

A career counsellor suggested her aptitude pointed to nursing, social work and funeral directing. She had never been to a funeral but remembered her elementary school guidance counsellor pointing in that direction.

To gain her funeral director’s licence (1999) she had to embalm 100 bodies, direct five funerals and do five pre-arrangements, plus an internship, write the board exams and complete an embalming in front of a licensed funeral director.

Race was never an issue for young Luann. She grew up in Italian neighbourhoods, picked up Spanish and Italian from the area kids to go with her British brogue. Not until she graduated from the funeral director’s course did she feel the sting of exclusion.

She’d done well in the course with the help of supportive instructors, but didn’t get a placement for months. And even when she did, her bosses would carefully script which clients she would serve — reserving her for Black families or social service burials or children.

“I was told I don’t look like I sound. My manager told me, in an awkward way, that I ‘don’t fit’.”

She added a funeral consultancy agency to her work, delivering clients to established funeral homes. But they often complained about Black funerals being too long, starting late and not paying on time. Jones had her own beef with her industry.

Too many of her colleagues did not know how to make up a Black corpse with the right shade and tone to make the deceased look just right, instead of a pasty pale. So she took to carrying her own special makeup kit for people of colour.

Jones does all races, all clients, indigent funerals, unclaimed bodies. Last week she was priest, and grieving family, and funeral train as Covenant buried an unclaimed body, sent her by social services.

“It was just me, my funeral guys and the cemetery workers. I do give them a dignified committal. This is what I was called to do” — her covenant.

Royson James� column appears weekly.