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Family to celebrate 100 years in the funeral business

John and Monique Ramseur admit it - each reluctantly joined the family business.

John, after graduating from Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C., with a degree in biology, wanted to study the effects of the radioactive isotopes of the element strontium.

He offered to work for a year in the family business. He stayed 51 years and although officially retired, still shows up for work.

His daughter, Monique, had moved to California where she worked for the financial firm Smith Barney in its operations division. A family funeral brought her home to Rock Hill.

Sitting at the family dinner table - the table where John had missed so many meals because of the family business - father asked daughter to consider joining him.

Monique prayed about the decision and decided to stay. That was 11 years ago.

Today, responsibility has replaced reluctance as John and Monique represent the second and third generations of their family to lead Robinson Funeral Home of Rock Hill.

The funeral home on Hampton Street marks its 100th year in business today with a 4 p.m. celebration at the New Mount Olivet AME Zion Church.

"We're the oldest funeral home in Rock Hill, bar none," said the 76-year-old Ramseur. He estimates Robinson has buried thousands - "way up in the thousands" - of people from York, Chester and Lancaster counties, as well those returning home from other states.

More importantly, employees of Robinson have served as counselors, unofficial financial and legal advisers, and often just a good listener to hundreds of families at their most vulnerable moments.

"People trust us more than lawyers and ministers," John Ramseur said.

It is a trust that has been built up over the years, he said, and family after family returns to Robinson for funeral services.

The company's motto is, "Where courtesy dwells and service excels." John Ramseur said he doesn't know when it was adopted, but remembers it since "he was big enough to read."

The business' original name was the "People's Undertaking Company." It was started by William Robinson and Johnie Mae Ramseur Robinson, John's uncle and aunt, in 1911 on Black Street.

William Robinson had worked for a white funeral home, John Ramseur said. Robinson operated the business until he died in 1931. His wife took over, becoming one of the few women in a male-dominated occupation.

As the owner of a major black business, Johnie Mae Robinson served as one of the leaders of the minority community.

Started work as a child

John Ramseur remembers working for his aunt. His first job as a child was to make the white walls on the tires of the Oldsmobile funeral cars shine.

He graduated to driving the funeral cars before going to college and then serving, "18 months, 9 days and 13 hours" with the U.S. Army in Alaska.

He returned to Rock Hill, intending to stay a year. He never left - a decision he does not regret. He studied to be an embalmer and funeral director at Eckle's College of Mortuary Science in Philadelphia.

He took over the business in 1970. In 1973 he moved it to Hampton Street and changed the name. The new name was "more palatable than 'Undertaking,' " he said.

In more than five decades of service, he has seen many changes in the funeral industry.

When he started, employees would go to a deceased person's home, embalm him, place him in the casket and help prepare the home for a viewing or a wake.

Today, all these services are performed at the funeral home.

He remembers greeting families as they walked, offering them sympathy over their loss. That's not done as often these days - a warm handshake has replaced it, he said, and funerals have become less emotional.

'We are event planners'

Funerals today have become more personalized - people reading poetry, releasing doves or placing roses inside the casket.

John's sister, Cyhese Ramseur Redfern-Plair, recalled a service at which the family brought a Clydesdale horse to pull a hearse for a Rock Hill funeral. The people walked behind the hearse as they once did.

The event had a tinge of irony. The People's Undertaking Service was the first funeral home in Rock Hill to own a "horseless," motorized hearse.

What has not changed is the way the Ramseurs approach their job - equal measures patience, compassion, communication, diplomacy and planning.

"In an odd way," Monique Ramseur said, "we are event planners, except we are on the side of death."

Maintaining composure is one of the tougher parts of the job.

The Ramsuers and other Robinson employees often know the families they are serving.

"So far, I've been able keep my composure in front of families," said Monique, 45. But in the instances where she knows a family well, she admits to having a good cry "so I can keep it together. We have feelings, we really do."

John Ramseur can recall only one instance when a Robinson funeral director couldn't maintain his composure.

The director started crying and had to be consoled by the mother of the deceased, he said.

Dealing with the emotions she faces daily has taught Monique to appreciate how fragile life is. But the biggest thing she has learned is "how hard my dad and Sam L. Reid worked. I didn't understand why they missed dinners."

More than a business

It was Reid's death a little over a year ago that showed the Ramseurs that what they do is more than a business - it a relationship woven into the fabric of the community.

Reid had worked for the Robinsons and Ramseurs for 61 years. He worked a funeral on Saturday and was scheduled to work another on Sunday. When he didn't come to work, the Ramseurs were worried. He had died overnight.

The Ramseurs decided to go ahead with the scheduled funeral, in part because that is what Reid would have wanted.

After that funeral, the family who had just lost a loved one returned to the funeral home to see what they could do to help the Ramseurs and other Robinson employees deal with their loss.

It was the first of many hugs, meals and offers of sympathy the business received from a thankful community.

"It showed me what you put out, you get back," Monique Ramseur said.