Waco's Hispanic Community Embraces Funeraria Brazos

Date Published: 
January, 2005
Original Author: 
Wesley Stewart & Elizabeth Anderson
Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey, Waco, TX
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2005

How do you serve the ethnic markets in your community?
Perhaps with culture-specific merchandise in your selection room, bilingual staff members and special events tied to their cultural heritages.
Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey has gone a step further—a big step.
The company opened a new funeral home, under a different name, aimed at the growing Hispanic community in Waco, Texas.

The typical funeral home doesn't hold a grand opening fiesta. But then Funeraria Brazos isn't your typical funeral home, at least not in North America.

In November 2003, Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey, a family-owned funeral home in Waco since 1925, transformed one of its two locations into Funeraria Brazos, which advertises servicio con un abrazo de familia a familia (service with an embrace from family to family).

Vidal De Leon, who came to work at Wilkirson-Hatch-Bailey in 2001 as a preneed counselor and has since graduated from the Dallas Institute of Funeral Service, manages Funeraria Brazos. He had previously worked at Wolfe Florist Inc. for 31 years.

The idea for a separate funeral home specializing in serving Hispanic families came through De Leon's talks with Darrell Simpson, WHB vice president. There are Hispanic funeral homes in other cities, including Dallas and Austin, but not in Waco, where the 2000 census recorded a population of 114,000, of which 24 percent is Hispanic—a much smaller market than Dallas (1.2 million, 36 percent Hispanic) or Austin (657,000, 31 percent Hispanic).

With WHB President Hatch Bailey's approval, the planning for Waco's first Hispanic funeral home began in 2003. According to De Leon, the process of transforming the existing funeral home into Funeraria Brazos was relatively easy. Though the downtown location was the company's first, opened in 1925, in recent years only 20 percent of WHB's families had chosen to use that facility.

The building's Spanish architecture was perfectly suited for use as a Hispanic funeral home. However, a new interior design was needed.
"We now have more of a Hispanic, Southwest flavor to our decor," De Leon said. "We make use of bold colors. One of the most talked-about accessories is a pottery-type figurine of people carrying a cross."

"We incorporate candles for certain services," De Leon said as he discussed the interior design. "This is a constant process with us, because we want this funeral home to have energy while still being a place of comfort. We are very proud to show people our funeral home while giving them information about our services."

After six months of work, Funeraria Brazos, Waco's first and only Hispanic funeral home, was ready to open its doors to the Hispanic community. Staffing needs were met through both a transfer of existing staff and new hiring.

The grand opening fiesta took place on November 2, 2003, El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, a traditional Hispanic holiday honoring loved ones who have passed on from this life to the next. More than 400 people attended the opening, and every media outlet in Waco covered the event.

Service families expect
Funeraria Brazos is dedicated to accommodating Hispanic funeral customs in order to help the family through the grieving process. Hispanic families typically expect more time for viewing and visitation. Children are frequently brought to the funeral home. Hispanic families also stay much later into the night during the viewing than is typical in Anglo culture.

"We have extended hours," De Leon said. "We have organized all-night wakes, and we have been here Saturdays and Sundays." Funeraria Brazos is more than willing to meet each family's needs as it works to achieve success "one funeral at a time," he said.

The staff has not assumed that people automatically will flock to the funeral home. Funeraria Brazos has implemented an aggressive marketing strategy, including television spots, direct mail, brochures, sponsorships, radio spots and speaking engagements.

The marketing campaign began in April 2004 with a postcard mailing to nearly 2,500 Waco households. The postcard featured De Leon and graphically illustrated the funeral home's competitive prices.

The marketing has continued ever since:
• The funeral home hosted a successful breakfast for area Hospice employees and staff to tour the facility. The question and answer portion of the event lasted nearly two hours.

• De Leon has spoken about funeral service and the importance of preplanning to numerous organizations, including the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and local church groups.

• Television and radio spots have been produced in English and Spanish and aired on both English and Spanish-language stations.

• Funeraria Brazos has sponsored events in the Waco area such as the Cen-Tex Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Annual Banquet and Cinco de Mayo celebrations. At Waco's Cinco de Mayo event last year, De Leon passed out information and discussed Funeraria Brazos.

• In honor of its first anniversary, the funeral home distributed a full-size, Spanish themed 2005 calendar featuring reminders of dozens of local Hispanic events.

Community ties
A Waco native and a well-respected member of the Hispanic community, De Leon
was a perfect person to lead Funeraria Brazos. During his 31 years at the florist shop, he served part of the time as personnel director. He is a member of the Knights of Columbus, a former Big Brothers and Big Sisters board member and a former member of the McLennan Community College Board of Trustees.

In addition, Funeraria Brazos has a five-member advisory team to help tap into the community the funeral home serves. According to De Leon, the five member advisory team, which meets regularly "to assist Funeraria Brazos in assuring that the needs of the Hispanic community are met," has helped shape the funeral home's vision. It was the advisory team's idea to create and distribute the calendar.

Team members are:
• Rose Flores, a Waco native with the local chapter of the American Heart Association and a volunteer for the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

• George Gobea, a retired community leader who worked with the model city program and was a member of the Equal Opportunity Advancement Corp. and now runs an antique shop.

• Carlos Pesina Jr., City Council member and owner of Hair Designs.

• Ruben M. Santos, former Waco mayor and former Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president. A former Baylor University employee, he is now at the Brazos Higher Education Service Corp.

• JoAnn Benavidez Wright, a Waco native who serves on the board of Avancé Waco, a program that teaches young mothers parenting skills, and a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The press release announcing Funeraria Brazos' marketing campaign last spring included comments from Pesina on the benefits of preneed funeral planning. "The prearrangements that I have made for my father have taken away most of the concerns I will face at the time of his death," Pesina said. "I have just finished paying on the five year finance plan, and now the price of my father's funeral is locked into 1998 prices. Prearrangement of funerals is a good thing that more Hispanics need to be aware of. I applaud Funeraria Brazos and Vidal De Leon for bringing this service to our Spanish speaking community."

Clearly, that sort of endorsement from a community leader helps. "I am very fortunate to have such a wonderful team of folks who understand and want to play such an important role," De Leon said.

After a year of operation, "The excitement and passion are still very much with us," De Leon said. "We're providing the best funeral service to every family that walks through our door."

According to De Leon, Funeraria Brazos will continue to grow and meet the needs of Waco's growing Hispanic community. Hispanics are the largest minority group and fastest growing ethnicity in Texas.

"The market is going to grow, not get smaller," De Leon said. "Those businesses that will be playing catch-up in five years will not be able to."