By Rodney Brown
D.M. Williams Funeral Home president Denise Williams has cried foul, after what she said was the wrongful denial of a “certificate of occupancy” by the Town of Irondequoit Zoning Board, for a separate building from her funeral home, which she uses for church services.
Williams, who owns a funeral home at 2793 Culver Rd., said the dispute surrounds an additional property at 2841 Culver Rd., which she is currently leasing to use for church services, but the zoning board has ruled 3 – 4 to have the church re-zoned as a funeral home.
Irondequoit’s Fire Marshal, Gregory Merrick, said he brought the case to the board after observing Williams conducting a “wake ceremony” at the church. Merrick argued in front of the board that, a wake ceremony is a service conducted by a funeral home, not a church.
However, Williams said the New York State Department of Health has been very specific in its definition of what comprises a funeral home, and what comprises a church.
She’s claimed the Town of Irondequoit has tried to alter the meaning of what a funeral establishment is, in order to justify its decision.
According to the health department’s compilation of laws and administrative rules and regulations relating to the business and practice of funeral directing, the following guidelines and characteristics should be used to delineate funeral establishments:
- The business and practice of funeral directing shall be conducted and registered only from a fixed funeral establishment;
- Separate buildings, or portions thereof, connected by a private passageway, walk or driveway shall constitute a single funeral establishment;
- After February 28, 1974, all funeral firms, and their funeral establishments, shall comply and conform as follows:
- Embalming- No embalming of a body of a deceased person shall be performed in a funeral establishment, except in a room set aside exclusively for embalming, or other preparation of the body of a deceased person. Such room shall be maintained and kept in a clean and sanitary condition.
- Embalming and preparation room- every embalming and preparation room shall be constructed, equipped and maintained.
And, in addition to the aforementioned provisions, a funeral establishment shall contain at least one of each of the following:
- A preparation room, containing at least 120 square feet of floor space;
- A chapel or reposing room, containing at least 300 square feet of floor space, to be used exclusively for the conduct of funeral services;
- Or, an arrangement office, to be used exclusively for making funeral arrangements, and other related business matters.
“How do you rule over a New York State law, which defines a funeral home through its requirements and specifications?” asked Williams. “Who decides if a business is a funeral home, New York State, or Irondequoit? The funeral home, and the church I’m leasing, are not connected. The chapel is two blocks down the street. A funeral home must have a place to prepare the body, so many square feet; a place to meet the family, so many square feet. You then have to send the pictures to Albany, New York for final certification, which comes from the New York State Department of Health. If the Irondequoit Zoning Board ruled this building at 2841 Culver Rd. is a funeral home, then where’s the embalming room, where’s the conference room?”
In response, Merrick said his interpretation of the law had been accurate, even if, under New York State Law, the building at 2841 Culver Rd. did not meet any of the requirements to be zoned as a funeral home.
“I’ve been a funeral director for 25 years,” Williams stated. “I think some of it has to do with being unfamiliar with African-American customs. They told me I’m conducting inappropriate business down there, when we have a ‘wake ceremony.’ African-American churches have conducted ‘wakes’ in churches forever. They don’t understand how we do things. I wouldn’t know what to do in a Ukrainian church. I have no clue, just like a Ukrainian person wouldn’t know what to do in a Pentecostal church. I believe the industry is still segregated, based on how we conduct our services. They start their funeral from the funeral home. In the black community, we start from the family home. They don’t understand that.”
Since leasing the building in 2010, Williams has complained about unwarranted instances of harassment from the Irondequoit fire marshal, such as being served a violation for not properly parking her limousine between the lines in the lot of the funeral home.
“I’ve spent thousands of dollars to do exactly what the fire marshal requested to meet code,” Williams said. “He requested I add a $9,000 fire alarm system downstairs, and; when I did it, he refused to give me a certificate of occupancy for the downstairs. He gave me a certificate of occupancy to have people upstairs, but would not give me one for downstairs (kitchen and dining area). Without a certificate of occupancy for the downstairs area, people are not allowed to return to the church for the repast. They can have a funeral upstairs, but they can’t go down and eat. It’s an African-American custom for family and friends of the deceased to eat at the church, after the funeral. When I was refused the certificate of occupancy for downstairs, my thoughts went from them not only being uninformed about African-American funeral customs, but I also began to think they don’t want us gathering around. Merrick said to me, ‘I am impressed you people still dress up and go to church.’ He then recanted, and said, ‘I didn’t mean it like that.’ What does that have to do with the situation? To me, he was putting out there he had a problem with certain people.”
In a telephone interview, after the zoning board’s decision, Merrick said Williams misled him in her verbal deposition, by saying the building was going to be used for religious services.
“I could give her a permit, but I would have to close it, because having a ‘wake ceremony,’ where people are allowed to eat at the building after the funeral, classifies as a funeral home to our understanding,” Merrick stated. “We can go back in front of the zoning board, and get the decision altered, where she can inform us when she is having a ‘wake ceremony.’ We can then decide to grant her permission, along with a fee.”
“They want me to pay a fee, and ask permission to have a ‘wake’ in the church?” asked Williams. “Why would I ask permission for something we do in our culture normally? You don’t understand what we do, or why we do it, so I have to ask for permission? We went through this 40 to 50 years ago. We went through this already. I think it is more of them not wanting us gathering out here. It’s just not adding up.”
Williams said she has reached out to other Irondequoit officials, including Irondequoit Town Supervisor Adam Bello, on numerous occasions. However, according to Williams, she has yet to receive a response.
“I’ve done everything I am supposed to do,” Williams stated.