"Look at the Walmarts," says James Shoemake, president of Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, where five Beckwith family members have either attended or are enrolled. "They're trying to provide funeral services for the masses...Their key to success is funerals for everybody."

But once a business becomes "monstrous," how can it keep its promise to give individuals, even the neediest, service and attention?

For Golden Gate, the answer lies in the drive and passion of John Beckwith Jr.

Mark Graham
A funeral service in one of the chapels inside Golden Gate
Mark Graham
A funeral service in one of the chapels inside Golden Gate


Video Extra: John Beckwith Jr. and Golden Gate Funeral Home's staff at work during a funeral.

Web Extra: Take a look inside Golden Gate Funeral Home's morgue.


When Beckwith Jr. took over as Golden Gates' chief executive after his father had a stroke, he built a new, larger facility off Stemmons Freeway that could handle the volume of his dreams. That was three years ago, and so far the extra space has allowed him to double his cases.

Beckwith has the same light skin, round face and thin mustache as his father. His suit is custom-tailored to accommodate the .45-caliber Glock pistol he keeps in his trousers pocket. He wears shoes made of crocodile hide, some with a pair of yellow marbles mimicking the croc's eyeballs. His name is inscribed in script on the cuffs of his jacket—"John" on the right, "Beckwith" on the left—and on the back of the collar.

His dream since he was a kid was to build the funeral home for greater Dallas. "I always thought it had to be very large because we're gonna bury everybody in Dallas...I want everybody," Beckwith says. "I want 'em all."

But Beckwith has a lot of work to do before he gets there. Despite his high numbers, many people don't know about Golden Gate, especially outside of the black community. Last year he buried fewer than 250 people who weren't black.

So Beckwith approaches each new case the way his father did. He makes sure the family leaves happy, regardless of their income. The fastest way to lose work is to mistreat a family. They will never come back.

The morning after the motorcycle victim arrived, Beckwith parks in the company spot reserved for the CEO. He throws back the high wooden entrance doors and is welcomed by his three staff "greeters," an idea he got from Walmart.

His office is behind the first door inside the building. It's dim inside with ornate furniture and comfortable leather chairs. With an "open-door policy," he's never alone, and the office would be more appropriately called the executive hangout. On his right is the "wall of fame," his staff teases, which is full of framed photographs of his family with cultural figures and entertainers, including Martin Luther King III, Al Sharpton and Alicia Keys. There's also a newspaper clipping from the late '70s when his mother was shot and injured during a robbery at a 7-Eleven.

His personal assistant, a young woman who is an apprentice funeral director, stands next to his desk and tells him where he needs to be this morning. Two families are each waiting for him in separate conference rooms. The first is a homicide viewing; the second is a customer complaint.

At the entrance to the first conference room, he opens the door carefully, as if an infant were sleeping on the other side. He may be dressed in a custom-tailored suit and crocodile hide shoes, but when he enters the room where the grieving family waits, he is quiet and stays out of the way. To be an undertaker, he says, "you have to be a servant, no matter how much money you make or the popularity you get."

Beckwith knows this family, but he doesn't greet the father. He speaks to the sister of the homicide victim in a low voice, and she leans toward him to hear. Then the sister, Sekethia Barton, tells the family the viewing room is ready. Beckwith leads the way at a quick pace down another carpeted hall, passing by other viewing rooms, some occupied.

The father is last to follow. His wrist and hand start to shake in the arm of another family member who pulls him along. In the room, a photo slideshow plays on the TV to the R&B classic "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday."

Anonymous callers often phone in all day whenever there is a wake scheduled for a homicide victim. The callers invariably warn of a retaliation killing and to have cops on hand. For the wake of today's homicide victim, Beckwith has already received three such calls.

Once everybody is inside with the open casket, Beckwith asks the sister if everything is all right. He then asks that everybody hold hands and pray. He backs out of the room with his hands clasped and head bowed.

Spirituality plays an enormous role in Beckwith's business, and he reassures the grief-stricken with a spiritual touch that he's perfected over the years. He likes to touch everybody in the room when he first enters, to communicate to them physically and mentally that he is here to help. "The touch lets you feel my spirit, and I feel yours," Beckwith says. "I want to interchange those spirits."

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