Just weeks after the Coateses launched their new $50 million funeral home at Little Diamond on the East Bank Demerara, one of the three directors of the entity, Petal Coates, is talking about writing the family name into the annals of an industry that has already produced quite a few household names.
Carmen’s Funeral Home is named after the now deceased mother of the three siblings — Hilton, Petal and Kavita Coates. The oldest of the three, Hilton, is 40, resides in the United States and is set to return to Guyana in less than a year. Petal and Kavita are 34 and 30 respectively. The trio appear to be surprisingly young for an enterprise which is dominated by funeral directors of age and experience. Hilton may have worked for a while as an employee in the industry in the United States, but his two younger siblings, the two resident directors of firm, have no prior experience in an industry which – for want of a better expression – is concerned with burying the dead.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was Petal, a full-time employee of the Caribbean Community Secretariat in George-town, whose idea it was that the family establish a funeral home. It was not the only business idea that had been discussed. The Coateses have toyed with the idea of establishing a strip club, then a restaurant. It appears that they finally agreed on a funeral home given the fact that Hilton had acquired some experience of the industry in the United States. That apart, Petal told Stabroek Business that their own research, coupled with the experiences of less than satisfactory service while burying both their mother and father pushed them in the direction of their current business
Carmen’s Funeral Home is the first establishment of its kind along the East Bank corridor. Its facilities include a viewing gallery, a modest chapel, office accommodation and a storage area for frozen remains. Initially, the people of Little Diamond were wary. Dealing with the dead evokes concerns that range from superstition to health considerations and the Coateses knew that their chances of having their business accepted in a skeptical community depended as much on allaying fears of the supernatural as on satisfying stringent environmental regulations. The latter regulations have been satisfied. Allaying the former fears appears to be a work in progress.
On the one hand the Coateses are convinced that their business venture has tapped into a potentially lucrative niche in the local market. Petal is practical about the venture. “The problems of the global economy will not affect us. The market is always there,” she says. Simultaneously, she insists that the focus of their venture is one giving service, raising standards and bringing new innovations to an industry which, for the most part, had been bound by convention.
The objective, Petal says, is to revolutionize the industry, to proffer a style of marketing that treats with last rites as both an opportunity for grieving and an occasion for celebrating life. It is a venture that challenges the traditional cultural perspectives associated with the burying of the dead. But Petal is quick to point out that those perspectives are being challenged increasingly by mourners who embrace the celebratory aspects of administering last rites with an enthusiasm that might appear excessive, even sacrilegious to observers unaccustomed to what has been described as ‘soul funerals’. On this issue, Petal is unambiguous. “People deserve the right to celebrate the passing of their loved ones in the manner that they choose. What we are doing is pushing the customization of funerals.”
It is from this philosophy that the Coateses appear to have derived their marketing strategy. Petal says that Carmen’s Funeral Home will work with the bereaved to offer such measures of grieving and celebration as they choose. The intention, she says, is not only to offer the mundane service of a facility for funerals, but also to work with relatives on using the ‘home-going journey’ as a special occasion. Planning will take account of, among other things, decorative issues like focusing on the favorite colours of the deceased and treasured memories like preferred music, nostalgic photographic displays, family videotapes being projected on ‘big screen’ and other features that make the occasion much more than a forum for the outpouring of grief. “It is,” Petal says, “a matter of giving the customer what he or she wants.” Currently, the firm is working on its first television advertisement.
Not that the grief necessarily associated with funerals is unaccounted for in what Carmen’s Funeral Home seeks to offer. Petal says that in May the establishment will be introducing its own grief-counselling service which will be provided by trained social workers and which, she says, is reflective of the fact that grief is an inevitable corollary of the loss of loved ones.
The directors, Petal says, have been more than heartened with the response. The residents of Little Diamond appear to be gradually accepting the presence of Carmen’s Funeral Home in their community. Since opening the facility on February 8, Carmen’s has administered four funerals including one that involved receiving the remains of a deceased person from overseas.
Building capacity is part of their present preoccupation. Kavita, the youngest of the three directors and currently an Orthopaedic Techni-cian with the Ministry of Health is expected to leave Guyana for Missouri shortly to pursue a course in embalming. According to Petal, she is enthusiastic about the pursuit.
Not unaware of the competitive nature on the industry, the Coateses are also offering their own incentives to customers. Funerals, Petal says, can be provided at costs that begin at between $60,000 and $65,000. “Apart from that we offer free transportation between Prospect and Craig on the East Bank Demerara. We are also prepared to work with people on payment plans that will not kill them,” she says.
More than that Petal says, Carmen’s Funeral Home will also be seeking to “shake up the industry” in other ways. In this regard, the directors are eyeing a particular monopoly currently being enjoyed by a competitor. ‘We do not believe that there should be a monopoly situation. Contracts should be shared among the businesses in the industry,” Petal says.