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VOL. 130 | NO. 93 | Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Harold Ford Sr. Returns to Memphis Funeral Business With New Concept

By Bill Dries

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In his years as a political force in Memphis, Harold Ford Sr. was known for his attention to detail.

Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. has opened his Serenity Columbarium and Memorial Garden on Sycamore View Road as he closes down his lobbying business in Washington D.C.

(Daily News File/Bill Dries)

The former Congressman would brush past campaign workers and climb a ladder to level a campaign banner or change the layout of “the Ford ballot,” sought by everyone from presidential candidates to court clerks.

In the weeks leading up to this month’s formal opening of Ford’s Serenity Columbarium and Memorial Garden on Sycamore View Road, he turned that attention to a statue.

“She just added everything,” Ford said of the sculpture of a woman bearing a water jug, which serves as the garden centerpiece on the 22-acre “bereavement campus.”

“A waterfall wouldn’t have been right. She made it. That’s her home,” Ford said after a dedication of the Serenity operation last week that drew Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

“I know it sounds a little silly. But when you come up, that’s who you are going to see,” he said. “She’s the protector. The garden will grow up around her.”

Ford bills Serenity as the first of its kind for the variety of services it offers including cremation as well as traditional funeral services.

The garden features marble niches to hold urns as well as gardens where ashes can be scattered. The indoor rotunda and columbarium feature clear niches to hold urns and other items for permanent display.

“This was always planned as the model and once we got the model and the cost involved and got it under control, we could move it to other cities,” he said. “We have property already in Chicago that we hope to get underway within the next 60 days.”

Ford’s company, Harold Ford Sycamore View LLC, bought the 38,487-square-foot shopping center on Sycamore View in 2013 for $1.8 million. It filed a $2.6 million construction loan in September 2014 and renovated the center to create Serenity Columbarium.

Ford has been in the funeral business his entire life – one of 12 children of N.J. and Vera Ford who founded N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, the South Memphis business that works with Serenity. He made his first funeral run at the age of 13 in a car he fixed up himself.

Ford was elected a state Representative in 1968 in a move to the political world that was always rooted in connections he and his family made with the community through their business.

In 1974, Ford, a Democrat, upset Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Dan Kuykendall to win the U.S. House of Representatives seat he would hold for 11 terms and 22 years; he decided not to seek re-election in 1996. Ford’s brother Emmitt was elected to his state House seat in 1974 as well as his brother John to a state Senate seat.

His son, Harold Ford Jr., won the Congressional seat in 1996 and held it for another decade. Ford Jr. also is a partner in Serenity.

Ford Sr. became a lobbyist when he left Congress. But when he bought the Sycamore View shopping center in 2013, he also announced that he would wind down his business in Washington D.C.

“I’ve scaled everything down,” Ford said last week. “I have two clients left and I’m just working through that. This is occupying me a solid 50 percent or 60 percent of my time.”

These days, Ford is bucking traditional trends in the funeral business.

“We’re not trying to say people ought to be cremated. They are doing that anyway. We have a lot more options now if they want to cremate,” he said. “Right now people carry their urns home and they put them on the mantle or they put them in the closet. They are finding themselves with three, four, five or six of them. … This is an answer to all of that.”

The Cremation Association of North America estimates that in 2010 more than 40 percent of Americans were choosing cremation over burial.

“The funeral industry wanted everybody to stay traditional,” Ford said. “They wanted the caskets to be sold, the vaults to be sold, the grave plots to be sold and the headstones.

“But people wanted something different. But nobody’s in that space. You can get cremated or you can get one columbarium put up in a cemetery some place. But you won’t find (another) campus that’s dedicated to that.”

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