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For 30 years, funeral director Mark Pipkin has helped Denver’s black community mourn and bury its dead with ceremony and style, creating memorial services that become legendary.
A Pipkin funeral procession is unmistakable: the matching burgundy Cadillac limousines and hearses, each with purple “Pipkin” flags fluttering by the windshield.
A formal Pipkin funeral stands on ceremony. Watchful female attendants in neat uniforms stand near tissue boxes strategically placed in the pews. The Pipkin pallbearers and other staff wear tuxedos and spotless white gloves, advancing down the chapel’s center aisle in measured, synchronized steps that are part military, part New Orleans jazz funeral.
“I tell my staff, ‘There is a right way, a wrong way, and a Pipkin way,’ ” says Mark Pipkin, who began Pipkin Mortuary Inc. in 1979 with his parents.
At 53, Pipkin is sturdy and affable. His impeccable wardrobe is as studied as his manner. His clothes are pressed in sharp creases. His words are enunciated in bites as crisp as carrots.
“You go to a Pipkin funeral, and they dress fantastically, wearing classy morning suits, and they do their processions with the maroon hearses and maroon limousines and the flags,” said Kathleen Lennon, whose grandfather started the funeral business that became Horan & McConaty.
“The rest of us got casual — no more hats and gloves. Horan & McConaty still has flags in the basement of the mortuary. But Pipkin people maintained that tradition of pomp and circumstance.”
Mark Pipkin grew up down the street from Granberry Mortuary in Five Points. Nearly every day after school, he went over to the mortuary to pepper the funeral director with questions.
“Every time my family looked for me, they knew I’d be over at Granberry’s, asking questions,” he said.
“I’m sure I was getting in the way. But that was God preparing me for this. That’s exactly what it was. He knows before we do.
I didn’t know it then, but that was my purpose in life. After graduating from high school, Pipkin attended mortuary science school. A year after he graduated in 1978, he and his parents opened Pipkin Mortuary at East 25th Avenue and Ogden Street, just a few blocks away from Granberry.
His mother, Marianne “Mae” Pipkin, sat at the reception desk. Mark Pipkin met with the families, and his father, Joseph, handled the accounts. The first year was lean.
“We did 13 funerals that year, and I remember every one of them,” Pipkin said, and chortled.
Today, he estimates that he and Alvin Braswell, his right-hand man, direct about 400 funerals a year. One of the most recent was for Ethan Wilson who died earlier this month at the age of 43.
“I didn’t want to talk about anything, that first day I met with them,” Wilson’s brother Tyrone said.
“But Alvin Braswell’s voice was so calm and soothing, and so was Mr. Pipkin’s. It was like listening to them took some of the weight off me, and they covered bases I wouldn’t have thought of, like Alvin got my brother a suit to match the coffin. And Alvin always wore a tuxedo. I wanted to ask him if he wears a tuxedo even at home, in his bedroom.”
Mark Pipkin compares the formality associated with African-American funerals to the distinction between white churches and black churches.
African-American comedian Rod Allison makes the same comparison: “Funerals are totally different experiences depending on where you come from, and what color you are,” he says in his act.
Both men say white church services are typically reserved and decorous, compared with black church services, which are often spontaneous and ebullient.
“It’s night and day,” Pipkin says. “We can openly express ourselves. We pull out all the stops. We have a little different style than the cut and dry funeral. We put more ceremony into the ceremony.
“Sometimes I get in trouble with the cemeteries when I allow the Holy Spirit to take over at a service, and we’re not out in time.”
People still talk about the Pipkin memorial service for Ashley Gray, a 5-year-old who was raped, murdered and left in a north Denver Dumpster in 1995.
The discovery of her savaged body horrified people throughout Colorado. Her death left Denver African-Americans in such shock that Pipkin was determined to deliver an extravagant service.
“What stayed on my mind was the way this little girl died,” he said. “I wanted to give her the thing she never had.”
Instead of a coffin, Pipkin placed Ashley Gray’s body in a ruffled bed. He set up children’s furniture donated by American Furniture Warehouse’s Jake Jabs. He filled the chapel with stuffed toys, balloons and storybooks.
“The big thing in funerals today is personalization,” Pipkin said.
“Personalization, but still maintaining that tradition. The other day, for a gentleman who was a Broncos fan, we did the background of his funeral program all Broncos. Or someone might want rap. But that traditional something will still be there. You aren’t going to have a funeral without ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Precious Lord.’ We still maintain tradition.”
Printed in the Denver Post