BALTIMORE (AP) — As an elementary school student, Carlton Douglass had a firm grasp on what he wanted to be when he grew up. While most kids wanted to be a scientist, a veterinarian or an athlete, he wanted to take a different road.
“I want to be an undertaker,” he said.
“What?” his teacher and classmates would respond, if not confused, at least surprised.
But some of those long ago classmates, who became decades-long friends of Douglass, will say that he is the only person they know who ended up pursuing exactly what they said they would as a child.
The funeral director and owner of Carlton C. Douglass Funeral Services in the Gwynn Oak area has been in the business for almost 50 years, with clients from Baltimore, the state of Maryland and beyond. In early August, he was named professional of the year by the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, a historically Black association founded in 1924.
Funeral services is one of the oldest Black businesses in the country, said Douglass, who is a member of the association and was the Maryland state chapter president for 10 years. Black funeral directors started the assocaition because they were not invited to existing organizations.
His fascination with funeral services began with his grandmother, who raised a young Douglass in Sparrows Point in the 1950s. When she attended funerals for her neighbors she would bring him with her.
At the church and the funeral home, Douglass would marvel as the impeccably dressed funeral directors smoothly conducted the service.
After attending the University of Maryland Eastern Shore to study sociology, Douglass left for New York City and the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service, a school for morticians and mortuary science.
After graduating in 1970, he worked at a Manhattan funeral home before returning to Baltimore, where he learned how to interact with grieving families — courtesy and understanding others’ pain is essential, he said.
In Baltimore, he did his apprenticeship with two funeral homes, Herbert E. Nutter and Vernon R. Bailey, where he learned how to be a funeral director, and learned the embalming process with funeral directors Lamont Thompson and Joseph H. Brown.
In his almost 50 years in Baltimore, Douglass has overseen funerals, with the help of other directors, for his mother, father, his two sisters and several friends. While it was difficult, it had to be done, he said. His loved ones would have wanted no one else but him to conduct their funerals, he said.
“You learn that mortality is inevitably going to happen,” Douglass said. “You just have to prepare yourself. And as a person who believes in God, you just know that, hopefully, when you pass away, you’re going to a better life.”
In April 2020, as the effects of the pandemic began to increase, Douglass told The Sun business hadn’t spiked yet, but that it was “just beginning.” Over a year later, he couldn’t say how many people he embalmed or how many funerals he conducted. But there were “a lot more” than pre-pandemic years, many due to COVID-19.
After he receives a call from a family, Douglass sets up an appointment with them to discuss the person. He asks the family how they would like the person to look. He will often borrow a portrait of them to ensure the person who died looks like themselves.
The pandemic meant Douglass needed to take extra safety precautions, such as using face coverings and personal protective equipment when embalming, he said. But the biggest toll was on the families, he said, who faced restrictions on how long the service could be and how many people could attend.
During his career, Douglass said he assisted and conducted the services of several soul and jazz musicians, including David Ruffin, one of the lead singers of The Temptations, jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and the “Queen of Soul” herself, Aretha Franklin.
Douglass is also a lifelong civil rights and community activist. He is currently an executive committee member of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
He expresses his activism through his radio shows, “The Carlton C. Douglass show” on WFBR and “Frank L. Conaway Sr. et-al show” on WOLB with noted civil rights attorney Dwight Pettit.
The “Frank L. Conaway Sr. et-al show” focuses on Black businesses in Baltimore city, historically Black colleges and universities, presidential, state and local elections, and social issues.
“He is very well liked, very well accepted” Pettit said. “And I think, through the radio show and his success as a businessman, he is one of the leaders in the Black community of Baltimore city.”
This past year, four of Mary Livingston’s family members died, including her mother and brother. She insisted Douglass prepare the bodies and conduct the services, due to his professionalism and compassion, she said.
Douglass goes “above and beyond” to ensure the person she lost looks as if nothing had ever happened to them, Livingston said.
“I always say Carlton will never, ever be a millionaire,” she said. “He will never own a mansion. But you know what, I’m sure there’s a mansion in the sky waiting for him.”