Going Out In Style
At Houston’s most elegant funeral home, death is just an excuse for the last, best party you’ll ever attend.
Before I could even knock, the front door of Bradshaw-Carter Memorial & Funeral Services, on the edge of Houston’s posh River Oaks neighborhood, opened without a whisper, and there stood the proprietor: a trim, dapper 49-year-old named Tripp Carter, wearing a tailored charcoal-gray suit, a starched white dress shirt, a black-and-white-striped Brooks Brothers tie, black Gucci slip-ons, and a Rolex watch. “Come in, my friend, come in,” he said as he pulled the door farther back, ushering me into a breathtakingly high-ceilinged foyer. On one wall was an early-sixteenth-century icon on wood of the Madonna and child; on another were four pencil drawings by the old masters. A seventeenth-century Flemish chest with ebony and inlaid red tortoiseshell stood in a corner of the room. In the center was another seventeenth-century piece, an elaborately carved marble table made in Venice, and on top was a Ming-era porcelain bowl filled with white orchids. Surrounding the bowl were half a dozen Manuel Canovas Fleur de Coton candles imported from France, their scent lingering in the air.
“You’re kidding,” I murmured. “All this for a funeral home?”
“At Bradshaw-Carter we believe that beauty can soften sorrow,” Carter gently replied, his perfectly brushed, prematurely gray hair glistening under the glow of an Italian crystal chandelier. He patted my arm and led me across the travertine floor into a library filled with settees, armchairs, oil paintings, and Oriental rugs; an English antler chandelier hung from the ceiling, and a rich red fabric covered the walls. A fire crackled in the fireplace, and classical music slipped out of invisible speakers. Carter handed me a long-stemmed glass of champagne, lifted his own glass, and then said, with a pleasant smile, “Cheers!”
It’s the ultimate in death chic: a funeral home so fashionable that Houstonians drop in just to get a look at it. Besides the foyer and the library, there are sitting rooms and lounges and a “salon” filled with ivory and gold French furniture. Instead of a traditional dimly lit chapel with long pews, there’s a sun-filled garden room with two hundred handcrafted Italian chairs and an exquisite hand-painted mural of an Italian landscape covering the four walls. There’s even a classically designed “grief library,” whose shelves are stocked with soothing books on death and dying.
Compared with a typical funeral home, with wall-to-wall carpeting, reproductions of famous paintings, bowls of potpourri, and furniture that actually came from a furniture store, the redbricked, Georgian-style Bradshaw-Carter, which opened in March 2004, looks like a baronial mansion. And it’s not only the decor that stands out. Bradshaw-Carter stocks made-to-order caskets (one built by Trappist monks, another created from the willow trees of an English estate) and rare leather cremation boxes trimmed with game-bird feathers (made by Pineider, of Italy). It has salespeople on call at Neiman Marcus and the high-end boutique Tootsies to provide appropriately dark designer outfits (what Carter calls “specialized mourning dress”) to the grief stricken who desire more-elegant funeral attire for themselves or their departed loved ones, and it has its own collection of luxurious pajamas and robes by Frette, also of Italy, so the deceased can look as though they have literally been laid to rest.
What is perhaps most unusual about Bradshaw-Carter is that it encourages mourners to hang around as long as they want after the funeral, going so far as to offer postfuneral receptions with “wake menus” created by Houston catering guru Jackson Hicks. The food and beverages—coffee, tea, and cocktails—are served by waiters in white coats. A harpist, a pianist, a string quartet, or a dance band is brought in to perform in the salon, and valet parkers are waiting outside to retrieve the guests’ cars. “We want your time here to be both intimate and memorable,” Carter told me as the classical music swelled. “We do our best to give you the ultimate goodbye experience.”
Bradshaw-Carter was the brainchild of Carter’s life partner, Ron Bradshaw, who died of pancreatic cancer last June, at age 49. For years, the winsome, boyish Bradshaw was one of New York’s most respected interior decorators, renowned for re-creating historic European looks in five-star hotels and the grandest Upper East Side town houses. In the early nineties he had a staff of more than thirty, and Architectural Digest and Vogue regularly featured his work. He was such a delight at dinner parties that Gotham’s ladies of leisure clamored for his attention.
Within a few years, however, those same ladies were rendered nearly speechless when he announced he was moving to Houston to apprentice at George H. Lewis and Sons, one of the city’s most prominent funeral homes. “Ron used to talk about how he had gone to his uncle’s funeral when he was a little boy and noticed how peaceful he looked in the casket,” said Carter, who was the director of development for the Menil Collection when Bradshaw arrived in town. (The two met at their high-rise apartment building and quickly fell in love.) “He and his brother later began playing funeral director in their backyard clubhouse, making caskets for dead bugs out of matchboxes and having solemn services for them. It wasn’t that Ron had some morbid obsession with death. He truly believed that a funeral could be a transforming experience for people during their time of greatest loss.”
During his apprenticeship, Bradshaw honed his embalming skills, spending hours on a body, using a variety of solutions and cosmetics to achieve a lifelike look. (“He would not allow one of his bodies to come off the embalming table looking gray,” said Carter. “He wanted them to look like they could get up and walk.”) Whenever he would return to New York to finish up decorating jobs, he’d drop by Sotheby’s auction house to buy items that would look good in what he called his “dream home”—the funeral home he planned to build someday.
Although most funeral homes are part of corporate chains—the biggest in the country is Houston-based Service Corporation International, or SCI, which owns more than 1,300 funeral homes, including George H. Lewis and Sons—Bradshaw was determined to run his own shop. Corporate funeral homes, he believed, were too profit driven. They operated like hotels for the dead, with giant lobbies where two or three families arrived at the same time and were ushered into adjoining rooms to view bodies. “He believed a funeral home should be just that—a home in which we serviced only one family at a time,” Carter recalled. “He even said he was going to install an in-house crematory so that our mourners would know that their loved one’s ashes were always here and hadn’t been mixed up with anyone else’s.”
Bradshaw and Carter bought property on West Alabama Street, less than three miles from SCI’s headquarters, and began building their 15,000-square-foot dream home, including a small upstairs apartment. By the time they opened they had spent every cent they had on the building and the furnishings—“several million dollars,” Carter told me, “so much that everyone in the business thought we were completely crazy.” Carter’s friends were baffled when they heard he had given up his prized job at the Menil to work at the funeral home greeting mourners, leading them to their seats in the garden room, and making sure the services ran smoothly. “They said, ‘What do you know about death?’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, but death is now my life.’ ”
For their grand opening, the two men held a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies for equal rights for gays and lesbians. Much of Houston society turned out in formal wear, chatting happily as they milled about in the grief library or by a display of urns. PaperCity was so impressed that it devoted an entire page to Bradshaw-Carter, assuring its status-conscious readers that it was a place that would send them into the hereafter “not with a whimper but with a no-expense-spared bang.” Bradshaw posed for pictures in a blue blazer, shirt and tie, chinos, loafers, and no socks. Nobody had ever seen a funeral director dressed like that.
It wasn’t long before charity groups began using Bradshaw-Carter for their own fundraisers. Arts organizations put on chamber music concerts. One well-known man about town, Gilbert Johnson, held his fiftieth-birthday party there, popping out of a casket with a champagne glass in one hand and twenty pounds of chocolate in the other. The grande dame of Houston’s social scene, Lynn Wyatt, delivered Johnson’s “eulogy.”
But the main business, of course, was funerals, and Bradshaw’s plan was to make sure that everyone, not just the city’s elite, was given the opportunity to experience the Bradshaw-Carter send-off. Although other prestigious funeral homes charged more than $13,000 for a top-of-the-line service, they charged only $5,350. Their first funeral, in fact, was for a middle-class man who had died of a heart attack in front of his wife at the dining room table. “When the man’s body was brought into the home, Ron and I wept,” said Carter. “We were overcome with emotion that we had been given such a responsibility. To be honest with you, I can’t remember any of our funerals where we didn’t cry.”
By the time Bradshaw was diagnosed with cancer, in June 2007, he and Carter were doing 150 funerals a year (not even close to the 400 to 500 a year reportedly done over at George H. Lewis, Carter noted, “but just enough for us”) for everyone from infants—buried in bassinets designed by Bradshaw—to oilmen. For the postfuneral reception of her husband, an ice cream heiress had a jazz singer, a string quartet, and a country and western duo perform in different rooms. Bradshaw and Carter even did funerals for two of their own shih tzus, which were embalmed and placed in caskets.
Bradshaw’s own funeral was one of the highlights of the Houston social season. Nearly two thousand people packed into St. Anne Catholic Church for his service—“there was not a peony to be had in the city that day,” Carter said—and many of them later dropped by Bradshaw-Carter for the reception. Dressed in his favorite custom-tailored mourning suit, Bradshaw lay in the garden room in a mahogany casket he had designed himself, the interior lined with the plushest velvet. His eyes were closed; a peaceful smile was on his face. “The man has as much style in death as he did in life,” someone said, munching on Jackson Hicks’s finger food.
After Bradshaw’s passing, corporate funeral home chains beseeched Carter to sell Bradshaw-Carter, but he adamantly refused. He still lives in the upstairs apartment and works seven days a week, continuing Bradshaw’s quest to bring beauty to the sorrowful. (He has a staff of twelve, and his 82-year-old mother drops by each day to answer the phone and run errands.) When I asked if he ever considered finding a job again in the world of the living, he smiled and told me how he had recently arranged for a grieving mother to spend as much time as she wanted with her dead child, who had been laid out in an antique daybed with his toys scattered around him. “We put off the funeral, and she stayed there, on and off, for three days, until she finally began to feel she could let him go,” he said.
Carter sipped champagne as tears filled his eyes. Then, before he could say a word, the phone rang. A man wanted to arrange a service for his father. “It would be my honor,” Carter said. “It would be such an honor.”