- Rebecca Ridley, owner of the Davis Funeral Home in Roxbury, gracefully helps each client get through a difficult experience. (photo by John Solem)
The Davis Funeral Home on Walnut Avenue in Roxbury has three distinct parts. The top two floors are where Rebecca Ridley ’93 lives with her husband and their two young sons. In the basement there is an embalming room. And at street level is where hundreds of people a year come to grieve the loss and celebrate the life of someone they held dear.
Ridley, a sparkly warm presence in the somber receiving rooms, is decidedly not the funeral director you might expect from central casting. There is nothing dour about her even in her business attire which, on this day, is a gray pin-striped pantsuit.
Her career path, which she herself would not have predicted, began when Ridley was 21, in the middle of her senior year at UMass Amherst majoring in economics. One day her priest, for whom she had worked during the summers, asked if just maybe she might be interested in learning the funeral business. One of his friends and parishioners was Helen Davis, a stately woman who cut a commanding presence in the Roxbury community. She was taking stock of her own mortality and ruing the lack of interest among young people in her profession. In short, she was looking for someone she could take under her wing and train to bring the services that the Davis Funeral Home had been providing since 1935 to the next generation.
It didn’t take Ridley long to jump in. “All my friends were leaving school and everyone seemed to be heading off to some entry-level position in some big company,” she says. “I was really intrigued by the idea that there was a business opportunity in my community that wasn’t going to be about some mundane pencil-pushing job.”
Norris G. Davis founded the enterprise in 1935 in a storefront on the corner of Humboldt Avenue and Townsend Street in Roxbury. And, in 1950, soon after meeting the woman with whom he would build the business into a community mainstay, he moved it to the appropriately earnest Victorian house it still occupies. Mrs. Davis, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, “swept into Boston” from Chicago, living the “life of a gay divorcée,” as Ridley says she put it, on a fundraising mission. Happenstance led to her acquaintance with “probably the most eligible bachelor in town,” says Ridley. Mrs. Davis, “had the sensibilities of a Southern belle, but she was a tough task-master.”
Ridley recalls Mrs. Davis, as she invariably refers to her mentor, as a “regal little firecracker.” Gesturing to a point well below her own chin, Ridley says, “she was this tall,” adding that she was a fastidious dresser who “wore hats to church and white gloves in the summer and always used a cane with a brass knob.” She also had firm ideas of what a funeral should look like and was intent on holding those around her to the high standards she set for herself.
It’s a tradition that Ridley carries on while also being constantly attuned to trends and changes in her industry. Her foremost responsibility is to compassionately help her clients get through a difficult experience. “We try to impress on people, this is an extension of their home so they can receive people here like they would receive them at home,” says Ridley.
At the same time, an important part of her business involves paying close attention to aesthetics. “People like a funeral to look good and there is a certain pageantry about it,” says Ridley. In her career she has done such things as hire a Dixieland band, arrange for dove and balloon releases, and find a trumpeter to play Handel’s “Messiah.”
Ridley, who bought the business and has been running it since 2001, was recently interviewed by the Boston Globe about the growing number of gang and drug-related murders the city has seen and the role she is often called upon to play in preparing young, often mutilated, bodies for burial.
“The saddest thing that has happened in the past 10 years is the sense of the inevitability of some of this violence. It used to be a shock and an aberration,” she says. “Unfortunately now it has become part of the reality of inner city life and the saddest thing is that the sense of shock and abomination has worn off.”
Asked what it is she thinks her priest saw in her that led him to recruit her for the funeral business, Ridley laughs, saying she wishes she had asked him. Ridley remembers that among his last words to her was some very practical advice, “It was so funny. He said, ‘Rebecca, get a P&S.’ He was telling me to close the deal and get a purchase and sale agreement.”
Though he died while she was still working for Mrs. Davis, Ridley took no delay in heeding his advice. She now possesses the business—and the community spirit it has always embodied.