When Zane and Victor Fitch, the father and son behind Dayspring & Fitch Funeral Home, lost their lease in Hillman City last fall, it seemed like the final straw for Seattle’s last black-owned full-service funeral home.

A fixture in Rainier Valley since the 1980s — most of that time in a converted Baptist church on South Lucile Street — Dayspring & Fitch provided thousands of families a place not only for viewings and chapel services, but also for the post-ceremony receptions that are so central to traditional African American funerals.

But as the years went by and more of Seattle’s black community left the city, this family-run business saw its own fortunes shift.

By the time light rail was gentrifying Rainier Valley, much of the Fitches’ trade was coming from families who had moved to more affordable South King County. When the old church was sold to a housing developer last fall, the Fitches were ready to move south, too.

“As far as I’m concerned, the whole world’s in Kent–or looks like it, anyway,” says Zane Fitch, 63, with a rueful laugh.

But as the Fitches have discovered, leaving Seattle isn’t so simple.

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When demolition crews razed the church in June, alarms went off among Rainier Valley communities that still depend on Dayspring & Fitch.

There was concern among immigrant families who turn to the Fitches to handle the intricacies of their burial traditions, and for shipping caskets overseas.

“The service they provide is quite irreplaceable,” says Mohamed Sheikh Hassan, a Somali community leader who began working with the Fitches 25 years ago and has pressed the family to stay in Rainier Valley.

Likewise, clergy in Seattle’s African American church community worry that the city is about to lose not only another business, but another social institution and piece of history.

Rev. Kenneth Ransfer, pastor at Greater Mt. Baker Baptist Church on South Jackson Street, says that even African American families who have left Seattle often return to the city for social events, and especially funerals. For much of the local African American community, Dayspring & Fitch is a cultural “benchmark,” says Ransfer, who has known the Fitches since the mid-1990s. “And when those benchmarks are gone, it has a way of leaving people empty.”

The Fitches have put their moving plans on hold. They have temporarily outsourced undertaking operations and rented out a small office near Othello Station, a few miles from where the old church once stood.

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But the pause leaves the Fitches in an awkward limbo, caught between the challenges of a small business in a gentrifying city and the powerful but complicated needs of their community.

“That’s the hardest decision,” says Victor Fitch, 36, who handles the company’s planning. “Do I go where the people are or do I stay where the people like to celebrate?”

Founded in 1987

When Zane Fitch opened Dayspring & Fitch, in 1987, there were fewer questions about where an African American undertaker should put his business.

In Seattle as elsewhere, Fitch says, the funeral business was still self-segregated: white families generally preferred white funeral undertakers, and African Americans generally preferred African American undertakers, who, historically, had tended to locate in or near the Central District.

Fitch had already broken some of those barriers. In the early 1980s, he says, he’d been the first African American undertaker to work at the city’s two big white-owned funeral homes, E.R. Butterworth & Sons and Bonney-Watson.

But Fitch could also see that Seattle’s African American community was shifting south. When he decided to go open his own funeral home—the city’s one remaining black-owned funeral home had closed in the early 1980s –he pictured a market stretching from “Henderson to the bridge” — that is, from South Henderson Street in Rainier Beach all the way north to the Ship Canal.

Fitch and his wife, Sharon-Rose, leased a building on Rainier Avenue near Genesee, and opened Dayspring & Fitch. (“Dayspring” is a Biblical term for “help in a time of trouble,” Fitch says.) In 1993, after the Damascus Baptist Church decided to move from its location on South Lucile Street, in Columbia City, the Fitches bought the large, stately building for $350,000.

The Fitches took an ambitious, entrepreneurial approach, extending their sales territory north to Everett and south to Olympia. They diversified: though their initial market was perhaps 80 percent African American, Fitch says, they quickly moved to serve other communities.

When Somali refugees arrived in Seattle in the mid-1990s, Dayspring & Fitch helped the newcomers navigate King County’s post-mortem bureaucracy. In several early instances, says Hassan, the Somali community leader, the county medical examiner presented grieving Somali families with autopsied bodies that were still “quite open, to our shock,” and thus unfit for the ritual washing that precedes a Muslim burial.

But the Fitches told the families, “Don’t worry — we’ll stitch it up and you guys can come wash,’” Hassan says. (Hassan says the county medical examiner now works closely with immigrant communities to avoid such issues.)

For all that, Dayspring & Fitch never strayed from the more traditional side of the business. They cultivated relationships with local churches and business and community groups.

They also embraced their role as a social institution in a community that was under pressure.

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For Zane, that meant hiring congregation members and even formerly incarcerated people he’d counseled as a prison minister.

It meant finding ways to offer discounts and no-frills packages to financially strapped families, letting them pay over time, and even donating the occasional funeral in particularly tough cases.

It also meant taking on an informal caretaker role at times when the communities they served were at their most vulnerable.

Funerals can serve not only as a way to honor the deceased and comfort family and friends; funerals can also be a chance for the larger community to come together around a death that may have been especially troubling, says  Ransfer, of  the Greater Mt. Baker Baptist Church.

“If we’re dealing with a police shooting or a gang shooting, [a funeral is] an opportunity to talk about the changes that need to come about and how we not only make the changes but how we become the changes,” Ransfer says.

For Zane, that role came with the job. Even in the toughest deaths, he says, “you just learned how to deal with it.”

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The Fitches’ hard work paid off. Even after a second black-owned funeral home, Southwest Mortuary, opened in Rainier Beach in the early 1990s, Dayspring & Fitch was still growing. By the late 1990s, Zane says, the funeral home was performing around 15 funerals a month. They had a small fleet of hearses and a staff of around 10 that would eventually include their two sons, Zane Junior and Victor, and two of Zane’s brothers, Zarnell Fitch and Morya Fitch Breland.

Beneath the surface, however, there were challenges. Like many other minority business owners, the Fitches struggled to get regular bank loans, which made it hard to expand the business. (Zane had leaned heavily on credit cards to open the business, and on private loans to buy the old church.)

 At the same time, the entire funeral industry was getting leaner. Consumers wanted less expensive services. Cremation, already unusually popular in the Northwest (we currently do about half again as many as the national average), was rising even in the African American community, which historically has favored burials, Fitch says. Many Seattle-area funeral homes were simultaneously handling more deaths but seeing less revenue on each one.

By the early 2000s, these trends were compounding other challenges for Dayspring & Fitch. Loan payments came due. There had been several customer complaints filed with the state funeral and cemetery board. (A spokesperson for the state department of licensing, which oversees the board, says that Dayspring & Fitch “work hard to serve their customers in an industry that can receive a lot of complaints”.) In 2002, a year after his son, Victor, graduated from high school and joined the firm, Zane had suffered a heart attack.

As well, the family’s willingness to cut discounts and extend credit left Dayspring & Fitch struggling to pay its own bills. In 2006, the Fitches filed for bankruptcy. They lost the church property, which went to a Seattle real-estate investor, who leased it back to the family.

The Fitches spent the next decade rebuilding. They did more funerals in South King County. They expanded into the Latinx, Ethiopian, and Filipino communities, and added a digital presence. By 2014, when rival Southwest Mortuary was bought by Bonney-Watson, Dayspring & Fitch was again the only black-owned full service funeral home operating within Seattle (though there are a number of funeral homes owned by people of color   outside the city that serve Seattle).

But that survivor status was tenuous. With the bankruptcy, the Fitches had become renters in a city where landlords could nearly always find a better offer.

In June, as the old church was coming down, Victor Fitch stopped by the site and managed to salvage the old Dayspring & Fitch sign. But neither he nor his father are sure yet where that sign will go next.

Community leaders think it should be somewhere in the Southeast Seattle. “Across America, every black community has at least one or more black mortuaries,” says Rev. Victor Langford, longtime pastor at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Beacon Hill, who has known Zane Fitch since the early 1980s. The prospect of Seattle without one, he says, “is unthinkable.”

But as Langford knows, the economic prospects for a traditional funeral home in Seattle have only deteriorated.

Many families now choose funeral services after a quick web search on their phones, says Rich Snider, director of business development with Bonney-Watson. If even an established funeral home isn’t offering that, he says, “you’re already behind the eight ball.”

And real estate is appreciating far faster than even the most successful funeral home. That’s one reason Bonney-Watson recently sold off its Capitol Hill and Ballard locations and moved its main operations to SeaTac. In booming Seattle, adds Zane Fitch, funeral homes are “making more money now by selling the property than doing funerals.”

Still, thanks in part to the community’s response, the Fitches know what leaving could mean for Seattle communities, especially those accustomed to Dayspring & Fitch’s no-frills offerings. But the Fitches also know that if they stay, rising business costs in Seattle will make it nearly impossible to maintain those low prices.

One option, Zane says, is to keep a Seattle presence, even if it’s only a storefront, “just to make sure we don’t lose contact” with the community, while moving the main facility to a more affordable area.

For now, the family is in a holding pattern, says Victor, who will take over the business when his father retires. He and Zane want time to study the options for staying and going.

As important, they want time to connect with community members–to hear what they want, but also to share with them the realities of the funeral business in 2019 Seattle.

That’s not a conversation that can happen quickly, Victor says. Nor should it. “What we’re [deciding] right here in south Seattle–which is literally the history of Seattle and the history of our company–it’s important,” he says. “I don’t think it should be rushed.”

 

The article has been updated with the correct spelling of South Lucile Street.