Randy Graham and Kenneth Johnson have the building. And considering people die every day, they probably would have the business. But for six months, all these funeral home owners-to-be have had to show for it is an empty space on the wall in the office awaiting a certificate of inspection from the N.C. Board of Funeral Services.
Graham and his business partner, Johnson, a licensed funeral director, say they have been working for more than a year to open their storefront funeral parlor on Christian Avenue in West Durham, but the North Carolina Funeral Board is stalling on issuing the permits.
Graham and Johnson filed incorporation documents with the N.C. Secretary of State’s office in 2012 and obtained a business license and permits from the City of Durham early in 2013. In November, after making the rented building operable as a funeral home, Graham and Johnson submitted their application to the board, expecting to hear back within a few days.
“They never called,” Graham said. “We sat here for two weeks, from morning to night waiting for the phone to ring.”
Johnson contacted funeral board executive director Peter Burke, who told him his paperwork did not comply with the Federal Trade Commission’s standards. Johnson said he made the necessary changes, adding a price list for caskets, vaults and other services, which is all the FTC requires, but he still did not hear back from the board.
“Mr. Johnson was reminded that December and January are the busiest time of the year for Board staff,” Burke wrote about the situation in a February email. “Board staff has directed and advised, and has even cited errors and corrections. But Messrs. Graham and Johnson have been unable to get their information in order.”
But the board’s own records show that Susan Mitchell, the inspector assigned to central North Carolina, which includes Durham, conducted only one inspection in Decemberbut not for Graham and Johnson’s business. In comparison, the board’s two other inspectors did 10 and seven inspections that month.
Graham and Johnson also say they did not receive assistance from Mitchell or from anyone else on the board, even when they showed up at its offices in Raleigh with their application and requested a meeting.
The board is charged with issuing and reviewing applications, giving exams, licensing qualified applicants, regulating licensees and conducting investigations. Board members and staff are knowledgeable about the funeral industry but they are not required to help applicants beyond these duties.
Former Board member and funeral director Jody Tyson says the Board has not been helpful to applicants and licensees “for years,” an assessment Graham and Johnson corroborate.
“No one would sit down with us for even 10 minutes,” Johnson said.
Mitchell looked at the site for the first time in early April, but it failed inspection because the floor could not be “easily cleaned,” according to the report Mitchell submitted to Burke.
They installed linoleum the following day.
Mitchell and Burke say they now refuse to deal with Graham and Johnson unless an attorney is present. “Inspector Mitchell reports that the communication and tone expressed by Mr. Graham and Mr. Johnson for the majority of her visit was less than cordial,” Burke wrote in a letter to a lawyer working with Graham. “Ms. Mitchell reports that she was addressed with raised voices at several times by each of the gentlemen.”
Graham and Johnson say they did not mean to be disrespectful toward Mitchell. Graham said he was only speaking passionately about wanting to open the business before his 88-year-old mother dies.
Graham says he has invested at least $65,000 in the business. He says he is now behind on his car payments and has been evicted from his house because he hasn’t been able to start operating.
“If they’re going to take money to run that state board from poor guys that are just starting out in this business, they should let people like Randy have his dreams and aspirations,” Johnson said. “At least give the guy a chance. We just want to be treated equal.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Deadlocked”