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Family Builds Legacy on Business of Death

The business of death may seem morbid but for Belva J. Jenkins, and her daughter, Lavana Jenkins Reed, it’s an enterprise with which their family has prospered for the past 84 years.

The mother/daughter duo represent third-and fourth-generation owners of Johnson & Jenkins Funeral Home, one of the oldest independent and Black-owned funeral establishments in D.C. And with the growth of J.B. Jenkins Funeral Home in Prince George’s County, managed by Belva’s brother, John B. Jenkins, III, the future looks bright for a family committed to helping others move through their darkest moments.

Their great-granduncle, Fred B. Jenkins, first opened the business in 1938 on Georgia Avenue in Northwest near Griffith Stadium, where Howard University Hospital now stands. There’s little known about his partner, Mr. Johnson, but upon his death, Fred invited his nephew, Joseph B. Jenkins, Sr., to move from Atlanta and join the business. Joseph accepted the offer, withdrawing from the premed program at Morris Brown University — the rest is history.

“My brother was more groomed for the funeral business,” Belva told The Washington Informer, sitting at her desk in the office at 718 Kennedy Avenue NW.

Surrounded by black and white and color photos of her extended family, including her mother, Lula Bell Murray Jenkins, Belva shared intimate stories about her childhood during which she and her brother worked side-by-side with their parents — a tradition that continues today, required of every Jenkins child.

“As soon as we were old enough, my brother and I were at the funeral home, passing out programs and answering the phones. We did whatever needed to be done. It was taught from the hip,” Belva said. “That’s how my mom and dad were — it was business, business, business from the very beginning.”

As one might expect, Belva’s three daughters, including Lavana, have all worked in the funeral home. And while Lavana remains as the heir apparent of the Kennedy Street location, there’s a fifth generation of Jenkins children, playing in an adjacent room, who spend a lot of their time at the funeral home as well. Lavana has two small children, while Belva, who opened her home over the years to nearly 10 foster children, recently became the adopted mother of three girls, including 2-year-old twins.

Belva, 59, a graduate of the University of the District of Columbia School of Mortuary Science, currently sits on the school’s accreditation committee and raises concerns over the declining number of students passing the mortuary science exam. However, her funeral home has become a place where students can learn the intricacies of their craft and she exudes pride over what she and her brother have accomplished.

“He’s got that and he’s doing very well there,” she said referring to her sibling’s Prince George’s County venue, “but my focus is our D.C. location. This is where we started, and this is where I want to see our business grow.”

Recently, she’s begun looking at retirement so she can spend more time with her children and grandchildren — a thought which has taken greater shape due to the growth of her daughter Lavana who she believes will take Johnson & Jenkins Funeral Home to the next level.

Both admit sharing an innate ability to “counsel families” and “gauge their needs” — a skill Belva says her daughter inherited from her. But it’s there where their paths depart.

Belva, calls herself “old school” — worlds apart from Lavana, 38, who spent nearly seven years working for corporate-owned funeral homes. They differ on today’s costs for a funeral, the new menu of services requested and which of their two respective generations seems most prepared for death.

Belva believes a family can provide a decent funeral for a loved one for about $6,500.

Lavana, based on her corporate experience, disagrees, estimating $9,000 as an average for a funeral in the District, Maryland or Virginia, adding an additional $7,000 to $12,000 for an acceptable cemetery burial site.

But careful to avoid intimidating families with too much talk about prices, both readily say to potential customers, “We will work with you.”

Lavana believes her generation is more prepared for the death of a loved one as many work for employers who provide life insurance.

Belva, on the other hand, said, “I’m between two generations. I grew up in an age when Grandma insured everybody. She’d come in with a hand full of $5, $10 and $20 insurance policies that would only total $1,200 which they’d paid for their entire life.

Millennials, she says, often have better insurance and ask more questions before reaching a rising trend of opting for cremation, posting death notices on social media instead of buying space in local newspapers and pocketing residual dollars from life insurance policies after the bills have been paid for themselves.

“It’s a different day,” Belva acknowledges, but steadfast in her belief that people shouldn’t spend more than they need to honor the dead.

“It so bothers me when people try to have services to make themselves feel better. Funerals are for the living and not for the dead. We encourage people to honor the dead, but don’t create a financial hardship when you don’t have to,” she said.

In the future, the Jenkins family plans to expand their services and they’re gearing up to provide community seminars and workshops on pre-arrangements and to spread the message that everyone needs to “Get your stuff in order!”

“The one thing none of us can avoid is death,” Belva said. “If you love your family, don’t leave them with the burden of trying to figure out how to bury you. All of this can be taken care of beforehand so when you close your eyes, all your children or loved ones have to do is show up.”

Lavana agrees, saying, “We’ve been talking about price but when someone dies there’s also grief. We need to talk about it, because I never have families argue with me if Mama planned her own service. Things tend to go smoother if everything’s in order and there’s a lot less stress on the family.”

Both offered words of advice.

“Go to the cemetery and ask the cost for everything, get an insurance policy or come in and let us counsel you. We can help you to take care of what you need. It’s just that simple.”

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