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.
Going Out In Style
THE DEPARTED: The viewing for Bradshaw-Carter’s co-founder Ron Bradshaw, who died last June.
Photograph by George Hixson

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

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