When taking a journey to Purcell Estate, as you pass Riteway and take the immediate left on an unpaved road right in front of Safe Haven Transitional Centre you see a glorious building painted in lavender. A small plaque at the front of the building reads “DAVIS FUNERAL HOME. DEDICATED TO THOSE WHOM WE SERVE. ESTABLISHED 1971”.
Davis’s funeral home is deeply tied to the burial and funeral practices in the Virgin Islands. Its history bears roots in the man who the funeral home is named after Mr. Phil Davis. The building that the funeral home now calls home and conducts its operation, was established in 1989, but the history as disclosed goes back earlier to 1971. Burial practices in the bygone days of the Virgin Islands were relatively simple, a person died today and by tomorrow they were prepped and ready for burial. This did not give families, especially those who resided out of the Territory, enough time to attend the sending-off ceremony and many did not get the much-needed closure. During that time, little was known about the practice of embalming bodies to preserve them for longer periods and as Mrs. Hodge-Wright noted, people were sceptical of the practices as superstitions ran rampant throughout the island.
However, this did not thwart the efforts of Mr. Davis. As the Territory’s only mortician, he became intrigued by the idea of embalming bodies to allow for perseveration, so families could get a chance to say their final goodbye to their departed loved ones. This led him to establish BVI’s first funeral home. However, getting a building with enough space and the proper specifications to construct a funeral home proved difficult as people were not comfortable renting property to a funeral home, for what can be described as obvious reasons.
That’s when Mr. Charles Hodge stepped in. According to Maris, he was a close friend of Mr. Davis and decided to rent him the property, where the funeral home now stands. During those days, the area was sparsely populated. Mrs Hodge-Wright pointed out that only the house that now stands to the left of the funeral home was there during the time. Nonetheless, Phil took the opportunity handed to him and built the funeral home to his needs and specifications.
During the early days of the funeral home, Maris said her father and mother would assist Mr. Davis with his operations until he was able to hire additional staff. The current owner said she remembers vividly coming from school and staying up late at night doing ribbons and making wreaths with her mother to put on the caskets. She also described memories of her father visiting the hospital when people died to collect the bodies and bring them back to the funeral home for funeral preparations. She said through these memories she committed to continue the legacy of Davis Funeral Home.
People might wonder why the home is still referred to as Davis Funeral Home, despite the owners not being related to Phil Davis by blood. Maris said the shared history with her family and Mr. Phil Davis, along with her respect for him for owning the first funeral home in the Territory are two of the main reasons. Because of his pioneering role in changing the culture surrounding funerals in the Territory, the Wrights decided to keep the name on the building.
Owning and operating a funeral home is not an easy task, emotionally, financially, nor physically. This was something Maris found out immediately after she took control of operations. She remembered seeing the accounting books for the first time and wondered why the previous owner would have an overdraft of over $125,000. However, as time passed, she quickly realised why that was the case. She described owning a funeral home as being on a treadmill and trying to stay on your feet. Nonetheless, through the difficulties she carries on because “You care! And you do it because it’s a service that’s needed. And, in some ways for me, it’s a legacy that continues”.
In keeping with the legacy of not only Davis Funeral Home but funeral homes across the Virgin Islands, Maris says she hopes to see more young persons getting involved in the business. In this regard, she thinks more information needs to be readily available to students about being a Mortician on careers day. Nonetheless, she said she has seen young people show interest in the business, especially the forensic side of it and through this interest, she hopes there is a pathway for them to develop and pursue their dreams.
Davis funeral home has been a staple in the history of the Virgin Islands. Many do not know or simply cannot understand the importance of the home or its iconic stature when dealing with the advancement of the Territory. From working with the government to dealing with private citizens, the staff strives to ensure every customer is satisfied with the job that is done.
Mrs. Hodge-Wright said the death of her father and how smooth the process was carried out, spurred her on to give the best customer service there is during testing moments. She noted the funeral home did everything for her. From dressing the body to dealing with the paperwork for the burial and that inspired her to give more when dealing with customers who come to her doors and give her the privilege to send off their loved ones.
She highlighted that when someone dies, the immediate family tends to go in shock and planning a funeral can be challenging and sometimes overwhelming. In this breath, she said “Davis Funeral Home relieves the burden of the planning process”.
Even though Maris said she’s close to the age of retirement, she continues to give her best and strive to pave the way for other funeral directors in the Virgin Islands. She said she will continue to advocate for funeral homes in the Territory and also continue to petition for better, safer and more space-friendly burial practices in the Virgin Islands.