An institution of community service

Published 6:12 am Thursday, April 21, 2016

Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man.

These are the words that conclude the late Marian Gray Thomas’ favorite poem, one that she loved and cherished.

Email newsletter signup

The poem’s words not only contain thoughts she could recite but ones she lived by in establishing the Marian Gray Thomas Funeral Home in Cumberland County in 1958 beside her home on Route 45.

For over 56 years, the county’s sole funeral home has served as an institution of community service to thousands of families across the region — a style of business that Loretha Trent Thomas, the current funeral director, and her brothers, Wendell and Jeta, continue to follow.

The business, which has always been owned by the Thomas family, began as an offshoot of the Buckingham Home in Buckingham, owned and operated by Ms. Thomas’ uncle, Lucius. Ms. Thomas’ husband, Jeta Sr., worked with her in establishing the new funeral home in the late 1950s.

“She just decided that she would like to have a place of her own,” said Loretha, who’s been operating the business for 30 years.

“That was her entire life,” she said of her mother-in-law’s service to the public and community.

The warm hospitality offered to those who have lost loved ones, family members and friends is something that Ms. Thomas taught her family before she died in 1996. Ms. Thomas, an educator who taught young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps in Cumberland, was the first African-American female to start a funeral business in Southside Virginia, according to the funeral home’s website.

A portrait of Marian Gray Thomas hangs in the funeral home.

A portrait of Marian Gray Thomas hangs in the funeral home.

“That’s what it’s all about,” Loretha said of serving the public. “That’s how the business was started and built on, and that’s all we know.”

Wendell said that his mother passed the torch of helping others on to him and his siblings.

Though Loretha enjoys her work, she didn’t voluntarily become the director of her mother-in-law’s business. “I always tell people that (I got) a swift kick from my husband,” she laughed of Jeta encouraging her to learn about the trade and become involved in the business.

Loretha doesn’t see any challenges in her line of work. “It’s a service; we offer it. We just happen to be the only funeral home in the county. Families that we have touched all down through the years are the families that we continue to touch,” she said.

The greatest joy in the business to Loretha is knowing that someone in need has been helped. “And out of that you really develop wonderful relationships with family members … They become like family to us,” she said.

Her brother-in-law Wendell agreed, noting that many who enter the funeral home crying leave smiling.

The funeral home has gained numerous awards and recognitions from organizations and people for its work and service in the community. Plaques and letters from the NAACP, Virginia governors, the school division and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity hang on the office walls.

The business, which serves the region, including Cumberland, Powhatan and Buckingham counties, employs Eurika Tyree, James Johnson Jr. and Thomas R. Brodie in addition to members of the Thomas family.