Neighbors: Estes accompanies community through life and death
Estes Funeral Chapel celebrates the beginning of a new era.
Estes Funeral Chapel has been in the North Minneapolis community for over 50 years. Though its founder, Richard Estes, passed away in 2013, its long and well-respected legacy continues through his wife, and now owner, April Estes and his nephew, Tracy Wesley, the business’ CEO, mortician, and funeral director. Estes is the only black-owned funeral home in the city.
“The Northside is such a tight knit community. A lot of times people still have this air of mystery about funeral homes, what they entail, and what they do. This building is big and grand, but we’re still small, family owned and operated,” said Wesley.
This month, Estes and Wesley spoke to North News about moving their business across Plymouth Avenue on the Penn Ave. corner, and their plans to continue supporting the community through its losses and grief.
By Daija Triplett | Photos by David Pierini
What made you want to make a whole new building for your business? April: When my husband passed and I inherited Estes Funeral Chapel, I was trying to decide what to do. I did a little praying for God to lead me which way to go. A lot of our friends, they would say, “are we going to keep our funeral chapel?” They would say “that’s all we got.” That’s true. That’s really true. In the meantime, God answered my prayers. NorthPoint wanted to build over to Plymouth. They didn’t have enough room. I decided that yes, we were going to build a new chapel.
Jamil Ford was the architect for this building. Why did you choose him? Tracy: [Mrs. Estes] ran into Jamil at a funeral service. She said she hoped someday we would be able to build this. He said “I’m an architect.” She said “when it happens, I’d like for you to be the one that does it.” Jamil was all in from the beginning. He had ideas of how to set it apart from any other chapel that anyone had ever seen. In the midst of this, he lost his sister. We serviced her and helped his family through that. He was really dedicated to leaving his architectural blueprint but also to making this something that is talked about nationwide. I really think he captured that with what he did.
What is it like having your own business? April: I haven’t had it that long. Five years. The first four years were terrible because I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve never had a business. I had only been in the building a few times [when my husband was alive]. I had mixed feelings. I knew a lady that used to teach my daughter over at Harvest Prep, Camille Boone-Harrison. She had been my friend for years; I asked her to please come help me. She helped me through this, and now she is the director of operations for Estes.
Tracy: It’s time consuming. It gives me even more respect for the things my uncle did and endured while running this. My uncle was a funeral director and mortician. That’s simple. That’s what I love to do. Now that I’m CEO, it’s a lot. The finances. it’s a constant, every day. It’s time consuming and challenging, but I’m enjoying it for the most part.
What does this new building mean to you? April: I’m excited about it. It means a lot to me. It’s my husband’s legacy. He worked really hard; he had a lot of disappointments trying to get his first funeral chapel open. Through all of these disappointments and heartaches and budens, he made it happen. He came from a family of funeral directors. He worked hard. It means the world to me to keep his legacy going.
Tracy: It is a continuation of my uncle’s legacy. It is something that he wanted to see. He was in the building across the street for 25-26 of its now 31 years. He had the vision to expand the business someday. It’s going to be such a benefit to the community to be able to broadcast services to people who can’t be here. We’ll have a nice computerized system of our old records. People sometimes forget where their loved ones are buried.
Tell us about Mr. Estes: April: He was a jolly person who was easy to get along with. Until you made him angry. He had a lot of empathy and sympathy for people. He would do anything for people. People would knock on our door all the time for things. He would never curse but he would say “dad gummet.” He wouldn’t let someone’s child or parent not be buried with dignity. He was a very, very good man up until the last minute. People here loved him. He loved North Minneapolis. They didn’t always treat him right but they respected him very much. We were in that building for [many] years. There was never a mark on that building or a window broken. [Losing him] was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.
What have you learned about death during your decades of running this business? How do you deal with being surrounded by so much sadness? Tracy: Not all death and not all services are alike. Each and every service is unique in its own way. None of them are the same. They all have their individual idiosyncrasies. The work is easy because I feel like I was chosen by God to do what I do. It’s never been a burden for me. I always knew since I was a kid that this is what I was supposed to do. This is something I was ordained to do.
What’s the best part of your job? April: Being able to help my friends to grieve. I know a lot of people, most people in North Minneapolis. I like to try and help them grieve. I’m a person to cry along with them. Being able to listen to them when they want to talk. Just being able to say “we’re here to help you and that’s what it’s all about.
Tracy: I enjoy working with families, lessening their burden of going through the grief process. It’s difficult. I always knew this was what I was supposed to do. It comes naturally. But now, having lost my parents and my uncle, it gives me a different mindset, having gone through it myself.