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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

Bragg Funeral Home

In Carnie Bragg Jr.'s high school yearbook, his simple aspiration is inscribed: "To be a mortician." Bragg, the second-generation director of the most prominent black-owned funeral home in Paterson, grew-up in the family business, which was located a floor below the family dwelling. His father, a former New York City garbage collector, started the business in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1937, and moved it to Paterson in 1945.

Carnie Bragg, owner of Bragg Funeral Home, poses in front of the business.

Located near the intersection of Rosa Parks Boulevard and Hamilton Street, the business was an immediate success, filling a need within local African-American life. As Bragg explained, his funeral home maintains traditions surrounding death that cater to the black community, including burials, wakes, home visits, access to the body for make-up and hair styling, and other personal services.

Like barbers, black funeral home directors gained prominence in their communities because they are skilled professionals who own businesses that provide personal services. Accordingly, they were often looked to for leadership. Carnie Bragg Jr., who was groomed to assume such a role, commented:

It's traditional in the black community that, usually, the funeral director is one of the leaders in the community. I've been blessed again by going to Fisk University, where it was understood that, if you went back into the community, you were going to be a leader trying to help other people.

Bragg took that responsibility seriously. He became president of the Rotary Club, the first black member of the chamber of commerce, and was a founder of the now-defunct Paterson Association for Black Businesses.

Caskets displayed in the casket room.

The level of activity for a funeral home business is directly related to the size of the local population, and Bragg Funeral Home grew steadily in relation to the growth in Paterson's population. A second building was added to the business in 1957, and the third and fourth buildings followed in the late 1960s. Currently, there are plans to expand again, this time in response to an increase in deaths resulting from the AIDS and crack-cocaine epidemics, a fact which saddens Carnie Bragg.

The funeral home's staff of twenty-five is constantly busy with arrangements. As Carnie Bragg Jr. puts it, "People have no idea what is involved in planning — [it's complicated] just like a wedding, but this you have to do in a few days." His own day begins at 6:30 A.M., when he starts answering the phones. He is particularly involved with the personal side of the business, that includes conducting interviews with family members to draw out details about the life of the deceased, such as hobbies and participation in family reunions. Bragg's staff handles the bulk of the financial transactions with customers. In fact, he says, his staff "doesn't allow me to get involved with the business portion because I know most of the families [who come to us], and I tend to give everything away."

Most people learn about Bragg Funeral Home by word of mouth, since Carnie Bragg does not advertise in the mainstream media. He continues the black funeral-home tradition of printing advertisements on paper fans that are distributed at churches throughout the city. The Bragg family name is well known among African Americans in Paterson, and the business is relied upon to perpetuate longstanding burial traditions.

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Carnie Bragg Jr.: The role of the funeral director in a community.

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