Meet Luann Jones, Dynamic Black Owner of a Toronto Funeral Home
We are pleased to announce that Luann Jones has partnered with PACE Canada as a new sponsor, and by way of introduction we have included an abridged edition of an article published by Royson James in the Toronto Star. Royson James’ column appears weekly.
The owner of Covenant Funeral Homes is used to the double takes from prospective clients and after 22 years in the business she is nowhere near a dead end, Royson James writes.
You may have heard that one of Toronto’s early Black settlers was likely the city’s first cabbie. Or that Blacks in the 1950s flocked to the railroad as porters — not because they loved train travel but because that’s where Black workers didn’t face a shut door. Or that thousands of Black women started arriving here in the late 1950s — because that’s who the government let in as immigrants.
But a Black funeral director? Correction. Make that, Black owner of a funeral home.
She’s barely 5-foot-2, elegant in her navy blue and white uniform topped with silver gray and blue striped necktie, hair tightly braided, not a strand out of place, resting on top of an exquisitely disarming half smile as she welcomes the reporter into Covenant Funeral Homes, at the corner of Eglinton Ave. E. and Midland Ave.
Luann Jones is used to double takes from prospective clients she is about to engage face-to-face at a pre-funeral arrangement.
“I researched it and there’s never been a Black funeral home in our country, in history,” Jones says. “So, I’m like the Harriet Tubman of funeral services. Others will come after me but that history can’t be changed. I’m the first.” It’s not a boast; it’s delivered in mortician monotone, yet with a twinkle.
Twenty-two years in the industry and Jones is nowhere near a dead end. Rather, she aims to expand Covenant into a series of funeral homes across the GTA. Who’s to tell Jones she can’t. That’s what she heard and disregarded from those in the know in the industry.
“You’ll never get in,” they told me. “Nobody gets in on the first try,” others said when she applied to the funeral services program at Humber College in 1997. The college gets 800 applicants, accepts 200 and graduates fewer than 150 then. And Jones was looking to enroll after being out of school and work for eight years. When she submitted her application for funeral services at Humber she scanned the framed wall photos of the recent graduating classes. She had to go back five years to find someone who looked like her.
“Persistent as I am, I did get in on the first try. Out of the tribulations I have gone through — single mom, two sons, wanting something better for them, juggling school, parenting, waking up at 2 and 3 a.m. to do my studies . . . I made it.” Side glances, quizzical looks and furrowed brows are regular responses to someone’s declaration that undertaker is a chosen career choice
Jones’ parents left Guyana for England before landing in Toronto in 1977. They lived in the Annex and then in Mississauga. Young Luann was a high school sprinter, lifted weights in the off season and was working for a graphic arts company when an accident forced her to reboot her life.
A career counsellor suggested her aptitude pointed to nursing, social work and funeral directing. She had never been to a funeral but remembered her elementary school guidance counsellor pointing in that direction.
Race was never an issue for young Luann. She grew up in Italian neighbourhoods, picked up Spanish and Italian from the area kids to go with her British brogue. Not until she graduated from the funeral director’s course did she feel the sting of exclusion. She’d done well in the course with the help of supportive instructors, but didn’t get a placement for months. And even when she did, her bosses would carefully script which clients she would serve — reserving her for Black families or social service burials or children.
Too many of her colleagues did not know how to make up a Black corpse with the right shade and tone to make the deceased look just right, instead of a pasty pale. So she took to carrying her own special makeup kit for people of colour.
“I told God if he would bless me I would be a blessing to others. It was my covenant.”