This piece was originally published in the Winter 2016-2017 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
It’s the Wednesday after Labor Day, and Jerry Mercer, senior director of Mercer Brothers Funeral Home, assures me his desk doesn’t always look like this. “But getting ready for the appreciation [day]…” he says, shuffling through the stacks of papers and documents in manila file folders and opened envelopes on his desk. The fax machine emits a whiny cry that reminds me of time spent in the 1990s waiting on dial up Internet, and the office phone rings continuously. I pause to give Jerry space to answer, but he never does, attentive to our conversation. He is in the middle of telling me about the appreciation picnic they hosted on Labor Day weekend when a friend of Jerry’s stops by his office to tell him how much she enjoyed it.
“When you rub shoulders with them, you’re rubbing shoulders with somebody,” she says to me.
Jerry says that 1,500 people attended the Mercer Brothers’ second biennial customer and community appreciation day. The food and entertainment (Gospel singer Dottie Peoples performed) may have been a draw, but the attendance seems to also be a testament to Mercer Brothers’ reach into the community. Native to Jackson, the Mercer family began their business in 1973. Now, over forty years later, they say they dominate the market and, as evidenced by the phone ringing, the fax buzzing, and the files on Jerry’s desk, they keep busy.
“Last year we probably did about 250 cases,” Jerry says. “This year we are on target for about 200 already. It’s amazing because we started with nothing. There were those who said we wouldn’t survive because there were already three other funeral homes here, but we kept persevering. And we started to get a few cases, and family members started telling other family members and other family members and things kept going.”
Jerry operates Mercer Brothers with his brother Ralph Mercer, senior embalmer and director.
“Anyone would tell you that Ralph is the best at what he does,” Jerry says of his brother. “All you have to do is talk to anybody and ask them who’s number one, and they’ll tell you.”
Jerry and Ralph’s father John Mercer died in a car accident when Jerry was a “knee baby,” aged-two, and their mother Carrie was still pregnant with Ralph, leaving their mother to care for their eight boys. But Jerry says their community played a large part in their upbringing, too. “You had not only one mother,” he says, “but every mother in that community was your mother.” Jerry says there’s no way they would be where they are today without such a community, help from their church friends, and local organizations that would bring them boxes of food and clothes during the holidays.
Carrie Mercer never remarried, not believing that any man would have cared for her boys the way their father did, so the Mercer family stuck together. Carrie taught the boys how to keep a house—to cook, clean, and iron. And the older brothers would watch after the younger, even assuming the role of disciplinarians if needed.
“When we were coming up, they were the father figures,” Jerry says. “If we did something wrong, they whipped us. And if they did, we didn’t get mad about it because they were taking care of us. . . . Five of them enlisted to take care of my mom and put us through school. It wasn’t easy, but we stayed together as a family.”
It was the oldest Mercer brother, Marvin, who got the family into the funeral business.
“He was working for one of the other establishments,” Jerry tells me. “And after he graduated from mortuary school—he went to the Kentucky School of Mortuary Science in Louisville, Kentucky—he was doing everything for the other establishment. Embalming. Meeting with families. Working funerals. Running insurance.”
When Marvin decided he could provide those services himself, he called all eight brothers, and they went in on it together. They renovated a two-story house on Hays Avenue and added a chapel onto the end of it, and in ’73 they opened the doors to Mercer Brothers Funeral Home for the first time—each brother and their mother taking an equal share in the business.
Like most businesses starting from scratch, establishing Mercer Brothers didn’t come without its trials. Business was slow, and they had difficulties with the building’s owners.
“But we were always able to keep our phones on,” Jerry says. “There were times when we wanted to give up because there were times that weren’t good, but [our mother] said, ‘God has revealed to me that one day Mercer Brothers will be a household name.’ She said, ‘I may not be here to see it, but I promise you it’ll happen.’”
Over time, their business began to grow, which Jerry attributes to their community. Between Carrie Mercer and her boys, the Mercers knew a lot of people in the community. “Those church folk that had a hand in raising us were the ones who kept us in business. They watched us grow up, and they were the first ones who got on the bandwagon. They wanted us to succeed.”
In the decades since, six of the Mercer brothers have retired, Carrie passed away in 2001, and in 2003, their building was destroyed in the tornado that swept through downtown Jackson. They rebuilt on the same location on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, and in 2004 they opened the doors to a new building where Jerry and Ralph still run the family business.
Now well-established in Jackson as well as recognized nationally within the industry, they like to give back to the community that has stood by them and supported them through the years. They sponsor baseball, football, basketball, and golf teams for underprivileged youth in the area, and when you walk into Mercer Brothers, you’ll see trophies the teams have won and plaques of appreciation they’ve presented to Mercer Brothers.
“We’re trying to get the kids off the street. Get back to the community,” Ralph says.
Mercer Brothers also makes an effort to be accommodating of families in financial need when they’re faced with the loss of a loved one.
“When my dad got killed,” Jerry says, “my mom had seven kids, and she didn’t have a whole lot of insurance…. But the funeral home worked with her knowing she had all these kids, and I look at that and think, ‘What would have happened if they didn’t help my mom?’ So families that come in here who don’t have anything, we make it work.”
Throughout our conversation, it becomes increasingly evident how dedicated Jerry and Ralph are to the people they serve. Jerry says they have to be committed and dedicated because the business requires them to be on call twenty-four hours a day. He tells me that they were working on Labor Day because two families called them in need.
“You have to love what you do in order to be good at what you do,” Jerry says, “but it’s a demanding business. We can’t plan a vacation or anything. You never know when that call is going to come and someone will need your service.”
When the call does come, the Mercer brothers are there because they recognize the gravity of their role in this moment of their patrons’ lives. They understand, when death does come, how important it is to close one’s story with dignity. How necessary it is to provide space for personal wishes and customs and ceremony to come together in a way that allows the bereaved to both look back and move forward at once.
“There are those who believe in the spiritualness of death,” Jerry says. He begins to describe to me the burial of Jesus—how his followers wanted to bury him according to Jewish law. They covered his body in oils and spices. They dressed him. They placed him somewhere he could be viewed by those who loved him.
Jerry then speaks of his and his brother’s work, “They don’t see sickness on the face or pain because they see peacefulness where my brother Ralph has prepared them and dressed them. So then comes the final service where friends and loved ones get to say different things. That’s closure. It comes in different ways, but it’s closure. Funeral service now is about bringing closure to those left behind. They see the remains. They see them interred, and they can say…it is finished. It is finished. I’ve done what tradition says I need to do.”
I ask Jerry if working so closely to death and with families in their times of grief shapes the way he thinks about death. He points to the framed Funeral Service Oath hanging on his office wall.
“Every morning when I come in I read that,” he says, “because I don’t want to become so familiar with death that I forget how others feel. That’s all I can tell you, brother. It’s a calling that we have on our lives, and we’re just trying to carry it out. We’re trying to walk in our purpose and that’s it.”
Josh Garcia is a commercial photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ
Photography by Josh Garcia.
tags Jackson TN, Tennessee, Josh Garcia, Our Jackson Home: The Magazine, Vol. 2 Issue 4, death, funeral home, Mercer Brothers Funeral Home, local business, Jerry Mercer, family, family business, Dottie Peoples, Christian, Ralph Mercer, brothers, siblings, John Mercer, Carrie Mercer, community, church, Marvin Mercer, Kentucky School of Mortuary Science, Louisville KY, Hays Avenue, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, sponsorship, athletics, sports, service, compassion, Jesus Christ, Bible, Black History Month, African American