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"At Home with Death: Bradshaw-Carter Strives For A Beautiful Goodbye"

by CLAUDIA KOLKER, May 4, 2015

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Open the door at Bradshaw-Carter Memorial & Funeral Services on West Alabama, and you might gasp. Inside this unremarkable brick building is a setting for saying goodbye like nothing else in Houston. A delectable scent of cinnamon skims the air. In the white marble foyer, a monumental 17th century Venetian table holds a Ming bowl filled with orchids. On one wall, a mercury mirror from the Renaissance bears a small painting of the Madonna brought from Turkey.And beyond, instead of the shadowy, off-limits spaces that honeycomb many other funeral homes, light-filled rooms entice the senses even more. Among them: A vast gold salon accented with 19th century Chinese porcelains. A manly lounge with fireplace, wood paneling, and baskets made from antlers. A softly lit blue room with hand-carved chairs and wraparound murals of Italian gardens.

“People are amazed,” owner Tripp Carter says, leading the way to his office on the second floor. “They expect something cold and sterile. But it’s warm, it’s nurturing. No one is in a hurry to leave.”

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In an industry that tries to send both the dead and the living on their way with top efficiency, Bradshaw-Carter is unique. Instead of making funerals somber and otherworldly, Bradshaw-Carter wants them to be homey, relaxing, and, above all, beautiful. In part, this is a throwback to the home funerals that were once the norm in America. It also borrows from the most humane death traditions of cultures around the world. And it reflects the singular artistic vision of Carter’s late partner, one-time interior designer Ron Bradshaw.

Carter, who now runs the business on his own, grew up a military child and went to Tulane, then worked in England at Sotheby’s before becoming a fundraiser for Rice University and the Menil Collection. Bradshaw, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 at the young age of 49, grew up in a middle-class Catholic family in Rhode Island, learning to love both funeral service and interior design. He memorized church liturgy, and when only five was already presiding over elaborate funerals for insects interred in matchbox caskets.

“He had a favorite uncle who lived with his family and had jaw cancer,” Carter says. “When his uncle died and was at the funeral home, he loved how the embalmers had made him look healthy again.”

After briefly attending funerary school, Bradshaw studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where he gained attention for his European decorating aesthetic and his fashion designer’s way with fabric. With a staff of 35, and an unpretentious charm, Bradshaw became one of New York’s most sought-after interior designers – as well a social favorite with the moneyed women who were his clients. They were shocked, Carter says, when one morning Bradshaw woke up and said, “I’m not happy.” He wanted, he said, to learn the funeral business. So in the mid-1990s, while continuing to work as an interior designer, Bradshaw went back to school to complete his Mortuary Science degree.

In 1997 Bradshaw relocated his design offices to Houston, where his parents and sister lived. And gradually the fashion designer became a mortician, apprenticing at George H. Lewis and Sons funeral home, learning to embalm using the same finesse he had famously applied to window treatments. By 2003, Bradshaw was ready to open his own business.

“Do you think we could start our own funeral home?” he asked Carter, whom he had met and fallen in love with after arriving in Houston. “Sure,” the then director of development for the Menil Collection replied. “I help make dreams become reality all the time.” “He wanted to have the most beautiful funeral home in the United States,” Carter says. “Bradshaw-Carter is his gift.”

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The heiress loved to gamble. So when her time came, Bradshaw-Carter delivered a funeral that honored her larger-than-life tastes. They hauled casino tables into the lounges, installed outsized pictures of the woman’s favorite racehorses, and made sure the Kentucky bourbon flowed.

And unlike most funeral homes, which conduct three or four funerals at a time, Bradshaw-Carter only holds one service a day, so the gamblers were under no pressure to leave. “People are stunned when they open the door – there’s music, a harp or piano, catering, wine,” Carter says. “They realize, ‘Oh, this is going to be a celebration.’ They relax, they meet people they know. Young people go into the study. People kick off their shoes. You get to experience the range of emotions without being rushed.”

In the eleven years they’ve been in business this way, Carter says, guests have never stolen any of the valuable decorations or damaged any of the surroundings. Occasionally, staffers will have to gently nudge them to go home. Midnight is usually the curfew. But otherwise, Bradshaw-Carter encourages leisurely leave taking. In late March, a Latino family requested the space from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. to say goodbye to a grandfather. In one case, when a family lost a child, the funeral home set the casket in a small salon and permitted the mother to sleep on the couch for three days until she was ready for a service.

The idea, Carter says, is to offer a home – an exquisite, soothing home – for families to part from a loved one. “Ron used to say most funeral homes are hotels for the dead,” Carter recalls. At Bradshaw-Carter, even the space where funeral arrangements are made is designed as a dining room, with a glossy antique table and no computers or pamphlets to be seen. “Ron said most families make important decisions around a dining room table or a breakfast table,” Carter says. “We wanted it to be that way here.”

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In the years when they were building the business, Bradshaw took this home-based approach to its furthest possibility. To finance the funeral home, the couple sold their painstakingly decorated condo and lived in a modest apartment next to the arrangements room. Soon, Bradshaw had plans for this space, too. “I want to open an embalming service,” he announced. “In our kitchen.”

“Where are we going to eat?” Carter asked.

“We’ll go out,” Bradshaw replied.

Carter agreed, and the couple installed a surgical suite next to their living quarters. Their main client was MD Anderson, which needed embalming to send deceased patients to different parts of the country. For a year and half, accompanied by their shih tzu Henry, the couple would drive to the Medical Center, retrieve a body in their Mercedes van, and return to the house. Bradshaw carefully performed the embalming overnight. In the mornings, on the way to his job at the Menil, Carter calculated the invoices.

They ate out every night.

Today, Carter lives in a full-fledged apartment again, though one still contained in the building that houses Bradshaw-Carter. The funeral home now has an embalming suite and crematory, tastefully hidden behind a calligraphy sign reading “Private.” It all adds to the homey ethic. Families don’t have to buy a casket if they’re having a cremation: they can view the deceased on an antique daybed, then have the cremation on-premises. Instead of sending a loved one to be handled by strangers in different parts of the city, families can be close to everyone in the process.

Bradshaw-Carter’s slow approach makes a difference, says Genevieve Keeney, president of the National Museum of Funeral History.

“Psychologically, it’s really important for people to have the time to embrace the fact that their loved one is dead,” she says. “Sometimes if we can give them the choice to take the time that they need, they can have a healthier grieving process. If you think about it, a funeral is for the living. It’s a time for them to come together and show support for each other.”

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Relaxing with the deceased at home is part of American tradition, Keeney adds. “We find comfort in our home,” she says. “Home is where the heart is. If you can create that environment that feels comfortable, where you can come together with family, and grieve and relax, there’s a lot to be said for that personalization. That’s how it was done back in the day. Embalming, posing, the funeral were done in the home. It creates a sense of comfort, of knowing who the person is that you’re entrusting with your loved one.”

Where most funeral homes have a chapel, Bradshaw-Carter has a garden room. “We thought chapels belong in churches,” Carter says. The soothing, pale blue room, with its hand-painted murals and hand-carved wooden chairs, is designed to focus all attention on the deceased and the relatives and friends who have come to grieve.

But Carter can’t resist pointing out his own touch embedded in the Italian gardens: a delicately rendered Texas Longhorn. “I had it painted in when Ron was out one day. When he saw it he asked me, ‘What did you do? You ruined my Italian garden!’” Carter recalls affectionately. “And I said, it’s Texas. We need a Longhorn.”

In fact, Carter says, every object in the house carries a personal story. On the second floor, a “grief library” offers sociology and history books about bereavement that guests may borrow. The books were chosen by Bradshaw, who read them all with a scholar’s attentiveness. Opening a cabinet below the bookshelf, Carter pulls out a broad, cloth-colored book from the 19th century, a catalogue of casket options. “Ron studied all of these images,” he says. “He studied everything about the industry.”

Even Bradshaw-Carter’s business style reflects the couple’s worldview. Carter – whose family was stationed in Japan when he was an infant, where he learned to speak Japanese before English – relishes the business’ appeal to other ethnicities and religions. “The Hindu and the Hare Krishna chanting is mesmerizing,” he says. “Once we had a casket out for visitation and were alone in the house, when we heard more chanting. We couldn’t figure it out, until we found the family had left a tape recorder playing Hare Krishna chants under the pillow in the casket.”

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While the funeral home routinely pulls out the stops for its elite clients, it has always insisted on making funerals affordable. Sometimes they do them for free. “Ron didn’t grow up with money,” Bradshaw says. “We do funerals regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or ability to pay.” It’s a tradition at the home to provide infant funerals free of cost. As a result, Carter says, “we have 1,200 guardian angels looking down on us.”

A few years ago, a middle-aged man with a long, disheveled beard appeared in the marble foyer. He had been turned away at two other funeral homes, but he had promised to provide an appropriate funeral for his dear friend, a 25-year employee of Kroger.

“Can we play ZZ Top here?” he asked. “And Indian music? My friend is Native American.”

Carter and Bradshaw agreed at once. But when it came time for the paperwork, it turned out the dead man had no funeral insurance. “Lo and behold, he had never signed the papers Kroger gave him,” Carter says. Kroger offered to hold a fundraiser, but Bradshaw-Carter went ahead and held the funeral for free. “He had been at Kroger 25 years,” Carter says. “Everybody knew him.”

Heiress or bag checker, Carter says, Bradshaw-Carter believes that everyone deserves to depart life in a lovely home environment. Because this home was designed by Ron Bradshaw, it’s especially lovely. And because it remains an emotional home for Tripp Carter, he treats his clients like relatives.

“I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” he says, carefully straightening a huge gold mirror on the salon wall. “People in the industry say, ‘You have to be the strong one.’ But I connect with these families, their stories, their music. So I cry with them too.”

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"Going Out In Style"

by Skip Hollandsworth, March 2009

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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 red-bricked, 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 post-funeral 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 post-funeral 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.

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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.”

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