As a young girl, Sarah Carter never dreamed she’d grow up to own a funeral home.
“I liked fashion and makeup,” she says, recalling her dreams of becoming a model.
As she sits in her newest building on her Emerson Street campus, though, Carter says that she’s right where she wants to be — serving others in their times of need. The would-be model became a role model: Sarah Carter is the first African-American woman in Florida to build her own funeral home practice from the ground up, after working for another funeral home owner for 22 years. Most women in the industry inherit their businesses from their husbands. This spring, Sarah Carter’s Funeral Home turns 10 years old. Carter and staff will mark the occasion with a Community Awareness Fair Feb. 22. “February is the month of love,” Carter says, so she decided it’s the perfect time for her to show her appreciation for the people she serves and loves.
Those who know and work with Sarah Carter are clear: Love and service aren’t just words to her. The home arranges burials, cremations and funeral services for people from all walks of life, all religions and all nationalities. Pastor Napoleon Karr of Peace International Missionary Church on Arlington Expressway has referred several of his bereaved congregants to Sarah Carter’s Funeral Home.
“Most of our people don’t have insurance,” the Liberian-born pastor says, referring to his diverse church comprising Africans, African-Americans and European-American members. “She works with the community in terms of pricing” when a congregant’s family member dies. “Money has to be raised in the community. She will come down in her pricing to accommodate the family,” he says. “I have nothing but praise for her.”
“She took time with us, when we buried our grandbaby,” Karr says. “She’s a very friendly lady, very considerate, very understanding. And she’ll deal with what you can afford.”
“You can’t turn people away,” Carter says of her clients. “If you take care of the people, the people will take care of you. It’s a ministry. You’re building something solid.” Her reputation for serving those in need is one factor in bringing the same families to her over and over again as repeat clients. At times, she admits, “I give away more than I take in … but it works out.”
“I believe she’d give you the clothes off her back, if you needed her to,” says the funeral home’s assistant, Keith Wards. Carter’s sister, Liz Edwards, who also works at the home, credits their mother and their Christian faith for teaching them generosity. When they were young girls, their mother would give away her own clothes to needy people in their East Jacksonville community — an act Edwards has seen Carter repeat in their community.
The young-looking, 58-year-old Carter still likes fashion and makeup. Dressing in elegant white and ivory suits has become her trademark. It’s a tradition that she and her mentor, former employer Walter Dorman, began at Dorman’s Funeral Home on St. Augustine Road. Carter is known in the surrounding Pine Forest community as “the lady in white,” Edwards notes.
When Dorman died, Carter says, she needed time to consider her next step. “The spirit to stand still is hard after investing so much of your life,” she says, referring to the years she spent working at Dorman’s Funeral Home. She met the man who would become her mentor following the death of her infant daughter, and was struck by the patience and care he extended to her as a young mother, driving her out to the cemetery to show her where her baby would be buried. Later that year, she left work as a full-time auditor at Independent Life to join Dorman’s staff. After he passed away, his family was not interested in continuing the business, she explains.
Carter credits another longtime friend and father-figure, cemetery sexton Arthur Williams, for encouraging her to launch her own business. She remembers him saying, months before she decided to buy her first building, “Ms. Carter, we’ve got to find you a funeral home.” As it turns out, Mr. Williams died soon after that, and his funeral was the first she conducted, weeks after closing on the building and obtaining a license.
Looking back, Carter can hardly believe that she managed up to five services, comfortably, in her first building. “I don’t know how we did it, but we did.” She says she developed grit and determination from raising three children as a single parent, with little support. One of those children, her son, Joseph, is now a funeral director at the home.
“I don’t look at problems. I look at how to solve problems,” Carter says, adding, “You don’t have time to pitty-pat the situation.”
Her assistant, Keith Wards, tells a favorite story to illustrate that point. One day when he was traveling with Carter from the St. Johns Bluff area to another service on the far-Westside of Jacksonville, they found themselves pressed for time. Then, the muffler came loose from the car and was dragging along, igniting sparks on I-295. "I couldn’t get her to pull over,” he said, laughing at the memory of the horrified passersby who were pointing to the back of their car. Once they were reasonably sure the car wasn’t actually on fire, he remembers what his boss said to him about those concerned fellow motorists. “ ’Don’t look at ’em. Look straight ahead!’ ” So he did.
“He loves to tell that story to everybody,” Carter says, smiling. “I don’t like being late. I did not stop that vehicle until we got to the church. And we were on time.”