John Beckwith Jr. walks into his morgue and over to the new corpse. His colleagues and pastor follow him inside, still talking from lunch. The air in the morgue stirs and rattles a paper sign taped to a door that reads, "Where excellence is standard and only perfect is acceptable."
Beckwith will evaluate the condition of the body. They all know the man on the table. He went to their church. Last night he died in a motorcycle wreck. Now his right eyelid is missing, and where his lower leg should be are instead splinters of bone.
"I'm going to recommend the family does not see the body," says Beckwith, an obvious observation that lightens the mood. To Beckwith, the 42-year-old in charge of Golden Gate Funeral Home, the business his father founded, an "even-keeled spirit" is essential to his work.
The Beckwith family operation is one of the biggest funeral homes in Dallas and the busiest black funeral home in the Southwestern United States. This year, they'll bury or cremate some 2,000 bodies—a number that includes 100 from a new Louisiana location run by a cousin. "That's big, monstrous," says Bob Duncan, a longtime funeral home supplier who sells to 50 other funeral homes in the Dallas area.
His father, John E. Beckwith Sr., opened his Dallas business in 1985 inside a two-story house nestled in a historically black neighborhood in Oak Cliff. His first year in business, he handled fewer than 200 cases, but he had a plan: He would serve the neediest people in his community and treat them with respect regardless of income. His generosity and habit of throwing in free limousines for families is still talked about in the community. For Beckwith Sr., who grew up poor in rural Louisiana, his business model was fueled by memories of the shoddy treatment his family received from a Dallas funeral home when his mother passed away long ago.
Inside the morgue, an embalmer takes the deceased's head and turns it right and then left. The neck is broken. The body is a mess, but Beckwith figures that if it's cleaned, the wife might be able to view it, at least through photographs.
"Let's go ahead and see if we can get him embalmed," Beckwith says. The embalmer steps toward a machine that sits high on a shelf and looks like a jug filled with pink goo with a tube coiled around its base.
A morgue is a worst-case scenario for the claustrophobic. Bodies are lined up against the wall, underneath sheets. Rows of feet point outward, so to walk anywhere you must negotiate a narrow aisle lined by the bottoms of yellowed feet with tagged toes. It smells of iron mixed with preserving fluid. It's very cold.
"Give me some digital photos from different angles for the family," Beckwith says. "I don't think she's going to be able to see it." In the end, she will view the body.
Beckwith employs a team of 65 people who share a curious fascination with the death business, most of them since they were children. The embalmer, for example, started helping out in funeral homes before he turned 10.
Beckwith says the business can grow bigger still by figuring out new ways to service people better. Fancy cars are important. Golden Gate owns a fleet of 33 white limousines, stretch Cadillacs, Chryslers, Lincolns, Mercedes and now a Bentley. He placed an order for the nation's first stretch Hummer-hearse to appeal to the younger set, which is a significant part of his business.
Many of the youths he buries died violently. In Dallas, as in other big cities, the majority of homicide victims are young, black males. He says it's his obligation to serve them, so he covers costs with reimbursements from the Texas Attorney General's Crime Victims Compensation Fund, which pays out a maximum of $4,500 for burial and funeral costs. That's more than $1,000 under Beckwith's average price. Some police officers say privately that some local funeral homes game the system, collecting the maximum reimbursement from the state while providing minimal service to poor families. But other funeral homes often refer homicide cases to Golden Gate because there's not usually a lot of money in them.
There are also the crowds to consider. Many evenings, if you drive by Golden Gate on Stemmons, the lot in front will be packed with cars and young people hanging out, leaning on cars, playing music. It sometimes looks like a nightclub. Beckwith is expanding the work of his father to create a brand, hoping to make Golden Gate synonymous with funerals beyond the black community. He has big ambitions to reach out to the rest of the city, black and white. He took his message to television in July with Ask the Undertaker, a program on public access channel 34 on Saturday nights. He hosts the same show, a hybrid sort of infomercial that blends selling with spirituality, on the radio from the studios of KHVN-970 AM "Heaven 97," Dallas' No. 1 black gospel station.