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    Editor's note: On Monday, July 1, 2019, Woody Porter, the CEO of A. D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home, died at the age of 72. Back in 2012, we ran the following story about Porter and his fourth-generation family business, which would go on to handle the funeral of Muhammad Ali in 2016. Alysia “Dani” Porter, who is quoted in the story, died in 2015. 

     

    Even as a boy, the undertaker wanted to know what it was like to die.

    He is 65 now, which means 59 years have passed since the funeral that is still vivid in his mind. It was springtime and public school was out. His grandfather had opened the mortuary in the early 1900s, and now the boy's father was in charge. Woody was the child’s name, and he had always enjoyed peering into the funeral home’s crowded chapel from the outside. On this particular morning, his father let him tag along off premises. “I just wanted to know everything,” he says. “I sutured my first human remains at six years old, standing up on an iron chair in the preparation room. Apron too big for me, gloves too big.”

    Mass began at nine o’clock at St. Augustine Catholic Church, 13th Street and Broadway. “Never will forget it,” he says. His velvet jacket was maroon. He remembers the foreign aroma of burning incense, a smell he grew to love. About the only detail he can't recall is who was in the casket. Woody’s father, his namesake, made his only son sit with the children who attended elementary school there. Woody was so curious. He thought, “I want to be dead and then come back.”

     

    Woodford Porter Jr. exits his office and clenches the handrails as he descends the carpeted stairs, which creak and pop, probably like his joints. His manicured, graying mustache makes him resemble the paintings of his father and grandfather in the A.D. Porter and Sons lobby, where he embraces the arrivals with hugs, handshakes and backslaps. The CEO’s in one of his 25 suits, wearing a black tie and a red-and-white checkered shirt, with a cursive “Woody” stitched into the left cuff peeking out from the jacket sleeve. “In case I get lost or get amnesia!” he shouts, literally slapping his knee, touching you on the arm in a way that says you’re in on the joke. His perfect circle of a head becomes one giant smile as each guttural cackle swerves through saliva, sounding like television static.

    Faux-crystal chandeliers, floral-patterned wallpaper, carpet in greenish hues. There are 10 rows of seven chairs on either side of the main chapel. Nearly 200 folks are filing in, and Porter knows many by name, tells them about his upcoming “total hip surgery” in 18 days on Aug. 20. He’s winded, sitting in one of the many chairs that would otherwise look like decorations. “Been sufferin’ for four years. Can hardly walk. But I got my pain pills in my pocket!” he cries through the static. He lowers his preacher’s voice, sotto voce, shakes his head. His face becomes exasperated. “Just the right hip for now, but I feel like the left ain’t far behind.”

    A.D. Porter and Sons has fewer than 10 full-time employees, including Woody’s oldest of four children, 38-year-old Dani, who is a vice president. His 29-year-old son Chase, a teacher at Newburg Middle School, drives the hearse and likes to say, “I’m in two professions that aren’t going anywhere.” When asked how many funerals have taken place since Arthur D. Porter founded this business in 1907, Woody’s eyes bulge. “Oh, dear Lord,” he says. The rough math: an average of 250 annual services — maybe a conservative estimate because a busy 12 months will see twice that — for 105 years.


    Woody Porter, CEO of A. D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home

    For a Porter, the first memory of life is death.

    “This funeral home has always been a staple in the African-American community,” says David Tandy, the Louisville Metro councilman whose district includes the A.D. Porter and Sons compound at 13th and West Chestnut streets across from Central High School. The Rev. Kevin Cosby, of St. Stephen Church, says the funeral home has done services for his family members, mother included. “It would be considered not just one of the best funeral homes but one of the best African-American businesses in the state of Kentucky,” Cosby says.

    A scanning of A.D. Porter and Sons obituaries — those who have “passed away,” been “called home” or “returned to the Heavenly Father” — turns up names that are historical (Fredrick Douglass Ramseur Sr., Marie Antoinette Parker), presidential (Jimmy Jerome Carter, George Washington Johnson Sr., Theodore Roosevelt Lincoln) and even biblical (Mary Magdalene Williams). And that’s just the past six years or so. The deceased are “survived by” as many as 43 grandchildren or, in one instance, a single nephew who acted as caregiver. Many were in their late 90s; some ages at the time of death were still measured in months. Last September was Owsley Brown II, who was once CEO of Brown-Forman, headquartered in the West End like A.D. Porter and Sons. “From the alley to the boulevard,” Porter says. “From mink coats to tattered shawls.”

    Over the phone, Brown’s wife, Christy, tells a story about the 2006 funeral of Barry Bingham Jr., a name synonymous with the Courier-Journal. “We were there to support (his wife) Edie, and there was a group, three or four of us, and we started talking: ‘Well, have you planned your funeral?’” Brown recalls. “We actually toured funeral homes to see what’s what.” She knew Woodford Porter Sr., who died in 2006, and appreciated the plaque out front about being family-owned. “I felt so embraced by their affection at a time when it was really needed,” Christy Brown says, choking on the syllables. “They became an intimate part of our family for that period.” During arrangements at the funeral home, the Rev. Cosby showed up. “I can’t tell you the prayer he said,” she says, crying, “but it was pretty powerful stuff.

    “When Owsley died, I knew that’s who I wanted to use,” Brown says. “I told them before I left the hospital.”

     

    The phone call comes first.

    It’s the last Friday in July, and Ron Price and Gregory Jordan are in the basement preparation room, off a dim hallway whose entrance is a key-padded door. Fluorescent tube lights cast a sterile glow on the three embalming tables. On one, a white sheet hides everything but the feet. Price and Jordan are in smocks and surgical masks, tending to the other two: an older man and woman with hospital bracelets still around their wrists. A fourth is covered on a cot in the corner. Cabinets hold bottles of embalming fluids — Triton 28, Delicate 25, Frigid 5 — in orange, blue and pink popsicle-like colors. Little jars of cosmetics bear the names Maybelline, L’Oreal, L.A. Colors. “Every type of makeup you could use, no matter the nationality,” Price says.

    On the counter: ligature, shaving cream and razors, makeup brushes, eye pencils, one- and two-ply gloves, nail clippers and polish, shampoo and massage creams. Over the intercom, a woman helping a family with casket selection asks Price to measure the width of one of the bodies. Twenty-two inches, which he says is about average. Duct-taped to the open metal doors are diagrams of the arterial and venous systems. There is a mechanized lift for the obese. A Jesus wall clock keeps time. “Last October we had 14 bodies down here,” Price says. “Hallway was full and everything.”

    In the hallway right now, a man rests in a black casket with gold trim, one hand over the other. Pants go on normal, but shears slice jackets and shirts up the back, making them easier to maneuver over rigid arms. In the office across from the prep room is a teenager who drowned in the Ohio River, the sutures that form a Y on his chest the permanent scar of an autopsy.

    A closet holds clothing from those who have already decided they’ll see A.D. Porter and Sons in the end. A woman’s pink shirt from Value City cost $16.99, a savings of $17.01, according to its price tag. The breast pocket of a massive blazer contains an unopened pack of Wave-brand cigarettes. For the barbers and beauticians who give final cuts, there are scissors and brushes and a curling-iron hub you’d see in a salon. A small security monitor, split into four screens, sits atop a wood desk, whose top drawer contains date books. “Whenever I pick somebody up, I write it in here,” Price says, flipping to July 2012. “This was a little baby,” he says. “This was the young lady who got shot by her brother.” Twenty names in January. Price flips to February (17), March (23), April (17), May (23), June (28). “And I ain’t finished with July yet,” he says. “Haven’t even added the two from today.” (The end-of-month total will be 30.)

    Price, who is 52, is a slender Division II basketball referee and father of four who started working here after his steel-factory job moved to Chattanooga, Tenn., a couple of years ago. The 59-year-old Jordan retired from the Louisville Water Co. after 29 years and started at A.D. Porter and Sons, where he had apprenticed in the early ’70s. “Just couldn’t sit around the house,” he says.

    The phone rings, a distinct tone that indicates Woody Porter is calling from his upstairs office. Woody says the staff also knows the sound of his footsteps. “I’m as hard on them as I am on myself. Which is hard,” he says. “I am more tolerant than my father, but I am a perfectionist.” At one point during the reporting of this piece, he made sure Price ironed a veil, then watched as he draped it over a casket. He had him move the flower arrangement on the casket a couple of inches. On the Kentucky Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, he’s known as “the judge.”

    “Pick it up, Greg!” Price yells, directing Jordan to the phone. “That’s Woody!” The third name for today has died while in hospice care.

    Minutes later, Price heads downtown in a white Chevy van. He has learned to bring a suit to the gym just in case a call comes through. Another man makes these runs during the night shift, but he’ll ring Price at 3 a.m. for backup if a pick-up is at a person’s home. They take the classier Cadillac hearse in those instances. “Young man’s mother died in PRP, and he followed us back, watched us unload her,” Price says. On a recent Tuesday, Price was in bed when his cell phone rang around midnight. They arrived at the house on 28th and Market streets by 1 a.m. “There were 25 to 30 people there,” he says. “She was way up a flight of steps, and the cot wouldn’t fit. We tied her up in the sheet and carried her down.” Does this line of work make him more or less afraid of dying? “Less,” he says, “because I know it’s going to happen.”

    Inside the medical center, Price asks the receptionist, “Can you call security and tell them I’ve got a 10-80 in hospice?” Recognition floods her face. The freight elevator clacks as it sinks into the basement. The security guard turns one of his keys inside another elevator to temporarily shut down access to other passengers. Once upstairs, Price signs some papers and rolls the cot toward a room with a sign warning not to enter without first asking a nurse. A harpist is in the hallway.

    The bald cancer patient’s mouth is agape. “Maybe a little pain hit her before she died,” Price says later. He pulls on latex gloves, collects the comforter and sets it on a chair. A greeting card and a vase of wilted flowers stand in the window. A single yellow petal has fallen. Price cocoons the 90-year-old woman in the white bedding, presses a button to lower the bed, to make it parallel to the cot. After he moves her, he buckles the body bag-like flaps, stuffs the latex gloves into a pocket of his suit jacket. “All right, baby,” he says. “Bless your heart.”

    Back at 13th and Chestnut, in a back room used for flower deliveries, a scuffed metal platform rises from the prep room with a mechanical buzz. Motorized arms lift a rectangular section of the floor, which closes as the cot travels down.

     

    Arthur D. Porter was born in Bowling Green, Ky., the son of slaves, and his father won his freedom by fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Around the turn of the century, the family moved from its log cabin to Louisville. Porter dropped out of school in eighth grade, started working for the railroad and driving a horse-drawn “hack” for the Ratterman family’s funeral home, still around today. From a recording of an oral-history interview at the University of Louisville’s Archives and Records Center, Woodford Porter Sr. says, “My dad said this old man Ratterman took him to Cincinnati and bought him a hearse and told him, ‘There, go in business.’”

    It began in a cramped two-room building at 441 S. 15th Street, a windowsill as his desk. From Aug. 18 to 20, 1909, the 10th-annual session of the National Negro Business League was held in Louisville, and page 38 of the “official souvenir program” includes a picture of A.D. next to the words “funeral director” and “embalmer.” The funeral home expanded to Walnut Street, then its current location.

    Woodford Sr. was born on Dec. 28, 1918, and grew up in a little brick house on West Madison Street between 18th and 19th. His mother, Imogen, is the one who passed down many of the family’s stories. In the same oral history, Woodford Sr. says his father became an entrepreneur, owning a barbershop, ice cream parlor and nickelodeon.

    During that time, Republicans expected votes from blacks, who still felt an allegiance to Abraham Lincoln. Problem was, votes didn’t equal jobs. In 1921, A.D. Porter became the first black mayoral candidate in the city’s history as part of the Lincoln Independent Parry, founded by William Warley, publisher of the activist Louisville News, and others. The slate included black candidates for county coroner, state legislature, the board of aldermen and other positions. According to a Courier-Journal story, this was at “a time when blacks were being lynched in Kentucky with alarming frequency — 154 blacks, including two women, were reportedly strung up between 1882 and 1927.” In the oral history, Woodford Sr. says white men offered his father more than $10,000 to drop out of the race. “A lot of money back then,” he says.

    The party only polled 274 votes, but that same C-J story says the NAACP magazine Crisis “charged 10 times that many votes were thrown into the Ohio River.” Leading up to the election, according to archival documents and Woody Porter, bullets tore through the walls of the Porter house and firebombs set the funeral home on Walnut ablaze. “White Republicans went to black churches and said, ‘A.D. Porter is not good enough to bury a dog. He’s a traitor to your race,’” Woody says.

    Business suffered to the point that only 25 funerals a year became commonplace. As A.D.’s mental and physical health declined, Woodford Sr. left Indiana University (he couldn’t attend a segregated U of L) to run the family business with his mother. “On his deathbed, my grandfather told my grandmother to file for bankruptcy. They were in that bad of shape. She said, ‘No, we’ll hold on,’” Woody says. A.D. Porter was 65 when he died in 1942. Several years later, Woodford Sr. told his son, “Woody, if we could bury 100 people a year we can make it.”

     

    Jeff Gardner, the 47-year-old president of A.D. Porter and Sons, has joined Price and Jordan in the embalming room. He “took care” of his own grandfather, the man in his life, down here in ’88. The three of them wear eyeglasses, the president’s of the designer variety. Gardner, whom Woody calls “a son and a brother,” has been working here 28 years. “My son told me, ‘Dad, you’re starting to walk like uncle Woody,’” Gardner says. He has traded his suit jacket for a navy-blue lab coat and a black butcher’s apron. “Heavy duty,” he says. He has removed the shiny black leather from his feet and slipped into a pair of battered Walk Mocs he doesn’t bother tying.

    They describe the work:

    “We use forceps, aneurism hooks, bone separators …” Gardner says.

    Jordan: “For me it’s artistic. A body has its own personality just as we do in the living. If I can get a picture and bring them back to how they used to look, that’s rewarding for me.”

    Gardner: “…scalpels, suction, aspirators, waxes, plaster of Paris …”

    Price: “I will lift up the eyelids, and I can tell if somebody had a heart attack because I’ll see the strain and pain in his eyes.”

    Tubes flow from both of the microwave-sized embalming machines against the back wall. “Drain through the veins, embalm through the arteries,” is how Price puts it. He says you have to turn the pressure down on one of the machines because it has the power to “blow a body completely open and rip the paint off these walls.” Embalming takes about an hour, with roughly two-and-a-half gallons of fluid traveling downward and the other half gallon going into the head.

    From a small CD player comes a saxophone instrumental version of an Alicia Keys song. Gardner asks for a scalpel, which Price grabs from a pile of tools on the deceased’s chest. Gardner makes an incision. He likes to say he feels the presence of God in his hands. The shallow gutter that runs along the perimeter of the angled table catches the red river, which streams through a small hole at the bottom and into a metal bucket.

     

    In a conference room on the ground floor, vice president Maury Duncan-Booker is meeting with two sisters whose 80-year-old mother, Dolores Couch, recently passed away. They dig through a Ziploc bag of photographs, trying to decide on one for the obituary, which costs a flat fee of $55 plus $8.70 per line and $60 for a photo. This is the second time Louise Beman, one of the sisters, has used A.D. Porter and Sons. In 1992, a drunk driver killed her six-year-old daughter. They talk about nail polish colors (pink versus frost), wigs, how each death certificate costs $6, what Couch will wear in the casket.

    “You don’t need shoes or socks,” Duncan-Booker says.

    “Yeah we do,” Beman says. “Keep her feet warm.”

    There are tears, especially when a friend in the room offers to donate a limousine to take the family from Green Street Baptist Church to Cave Hill Cemetery, but also laughter. Beman: “I’m so cheap I’ll make an eagle scream on a dollar!” and, regarding flowers on the casket, “We don’t want no weeds on top of it!”

    In the basement, they look at a lavender-colored casket. (As Woody likes to say: “Caskets are just like automobiles. All will get you from point A to point B. It’s just how you want to get there. Some will go in a Hyundai, others in a Rolls-Royce.”) The cheapest burial liner down here is made of concrete and costs $800. There are caskets of mahogany ($9,000), poplar ($4,910) and walnut ($19,500). The most expensive model is solid bronze and costs $25,000. The rapper from Louisville known as Static Major went into the ground in one of those. Brushed pewter and Bordeaux crystal urns.

    Duncan-Booker says, “You OK? It sort of hits you when you’re down here, doesn’t it?”

    “I'm good,” Beman says. “My second time.”

     

    Upstairs, Woody Porter is telling stories about his grandmother Imogen, who once used this office as a bedroom. The whole floor, kitchen included, was her apartment. “I learned a lot of the history sitting on her lap,” Porter says. She always told him he was just like his grandpa, whom he never met. “He was just smaller than me,” Porter says. “I truly feel the spirit lives — that might be the wrong word — but the spirit exists after your physical body dies. This might sound crazy to some people, but I really feel my grandfather’s spirit on me.”

    When asked if Woodford Sr. was tough on him, Woody whistles. “Hard as nails,” he says. “Never complimented me to my face. Never did. But he was my idol. I wanted to be close to him, and the way to do that was to be at the funeral home. He made sure I grew up manly as the only boy of five children.” He says his dad’s brother, named A.D., was an “undertaker supreme” until he died when Woody was about 30.

    “I used to wake up in the middle of the night and hear the phone ring. It’d be my grandmother calling my father saying, ‘Somebody died at home.’ And he would have to get up,” Porter says. Woody would run down to the landing of the steps of their house on Greenwood Avenue, begging and crying to go too. “If it wasn’t a school night he’d normally say, ‘Well — OK, son, come on,’” he says. Back then, the gurney-like cot to pick up bodies had just two wheels. “We’d push it down long halls, all that weight,” he says. “I would make the men let me lift the body and hold on, too.” As a teenager, the well-known black legislator Charlie Anderson arrived at A.D. Porter and Sons after a passenger train barreled into his car. “I saw ’em put his head back on,” Porter says.

    (Everybody at A.D. Porter and Sons says a similar version of this quote from Dani Porter: “Working here has taught me that life is precious.” It might sound hokey, until you spend 10 minutes inside.)

    In 1958, Woodford Sr. became the first black man elected to the old Louisville School Board (the C-J was still referring to blacks as negroes) and, later, to the University of Louisville’s board of trustees. His wife Harriett was an educator. Woodford Sr., in the oral-history interview, says he once protested a segregated performance of Carmen Jones by an all-black cast. He says his children were involved in the sit-in movement and he once saw a police officer drive a nightstick into the stomach of his daughter Marie outside a restaurant.

    In the early 2000s, Woodford Sr. allowed his daughters to become part owners with his son. “That was a bitter pill for me to swallow because I had given my life to this,” Woody says. He eventually bought them out and opened a second location on Bardstown Road in southeast Louisville. He wants to do another in town or somewhere else in the state. A low point was in 2006, when one person was killed and four others injured in a shooting outside the West End building during a wake. “The tragedy wasn’t that someone got killed at the funeral home. The tragedy was that someone got killed,” Woody says. “But you have to move on. We did a funeral the next day.”

    Woody lives near Ballard High School with his fourth wife, and most days he is still the first one to arrive at work. (“He’s still here every day and will be until we go to Cave Hill Cemetery,” Dani jokes.) “I’ve worked hard in my life, and I’m not afraid to say that,” he says. “I still would embalm if my back and hips would let me.” Woody points at a black-and-white class picture on the wall, from when he graduated mortuary school in 1972. “Had more hair back then,” he says. “Most people don’t live with death daily. I live with it daily and know how real it is. The older I get in this business, the harder it is on me only because my acquaintances, people I’ve known all my life, are dying now. It was their grandparents, then their parents, and now it’s them.”

    He says he has diabetes and has had two strokes and two heart attacks. “The people who know me know I’m really lucky to be living,” he says, adding that he went straight to the hospital after Owsley Brown’s services. “They were operating on my heart the next morning,” he says, “but I felt that I had to be there for that family.” He points to the right side of his head, explains how one of the arteries is “completely clogged up. The other one, I have a stent going up to feed my brain. At least I’ve got one open.

    “The doctor told me each step I take could be my last. All the sudden, the other one could close an d— boom! — I’m just gonna have a massive stroke and die,” Porter says. “When he told me that a little over a year ago, for about two weeks I was sort of depressed. Then I said, ‘I will not allow myself to live in fear.’ Why should I fear dying?”

     

    A white board in the lobby office contains names, plus visitation and funeral locations and times. In the main chapel, friends and family are saying goodbye to Sallie Ann Jones, a life-insurance agent who retired and worked for the postal service. Gardner removes Jones’ eyeglasses and jewelry, closes the lid, adjusts the pink and white roses. The 75 programs are not nearly enough so more are printed up. There is an overflow room, with curtains pulled back to reveal a flat-screen television that will show the service.

    The chorus is 16 voices strong. “One more verse and we’ll be outta here!” the sweaty reverend shouts. Out front, Woody’s blue Mercedes is the first in a line of 20 cars bearing those familiar little purple funeral flags. The men wearing pallbearer ribbons carry the white casket, guide it over the rollers on the floor of the hearse. Woody turns on the twirling yellow lights on the roof of his car. Price stops traffic, lets the processional head toward Cave Hill, which will one day be Woody’s final resting place, too. The black granite marker is already in place with his name on it. “If it comes unexpected, I’m ready,” he says.

    He’s had his lot in Cave Hill for about five years. There is room for his children. “So we can all be together,” he says. “I can look across the road at my parents.” He wanted a mahogany casket with thick, six-inch planks but they don’t make one big enough to hold him. So he’ll go with solid bronze. “Pretty expensive. It’s like a sarcophagus,” he says. “Like the Egyptians. Like kings and queens.”

     

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

    This originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine.

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