Oldest living Black funeral director celebrated at 90

Mr. Joseph H. Ivy, seated alongside his wife Margaret Ivy, is the oldest living African American funeral director in Tennessee. He is surrounded by well-wishers who paid tribute to him on his 90th birthday, June 7. Photo by Wiley Henry

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — On Sunday, June 7, a small crowd gathered at the corner of Curry Drive and Hyde Park Street in the Hyde Park community – not to protest man’s inhumanity to man, but to honor a man for his humanity.

This was a special day for Mr. Joseph H. Ivy, his 90th birthday, one that was replete with fanfare and a fleet of limousines and funeral cars from more than 40 funeral homes in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Funeral directors and morticians came together to pay tribute to one of their own, a man with the distinction of being the oldest living African-American funeral director in the state of Tennessee. 

Mr. Ivy has seen a lot of people in his 90 years – including the bevy while serving in the United States Army – but this groundswell was overwhelming from his vantage point under a tent at the corner of Curry, a short distance from his residence on the street.

Friends in the industry called out Mr. Ivy’s name from their funeral cars and esteemed him with their words as they made their way down Curry. He waved in return and said this about the experience: “It’s wonderful. I didn’t expect this attention.” 

They presented gifts and more to celebrate the beloved funeral director for long life and his contribution to the industry. This was a surprise that the Rev. Quinton Taylor kept secret until this day. 

Mr. Ivy in return marveled at the unsuspecting display of affection. “I’m really surprised,” said Mr. Ivy, not a man of many words on this day. 

Age notwithstanding, Mr. Ivy is admired and respected throughout the funeral service industry all over the country, said Taylor, pastor of Second Baptist Church of Hernando, Miss., and president of Bluff City Funeral Directors & Morticians Association. 

Hosted by Bluff City Funeral Directors & Morticians Association and Arkansas State Funeral Directors Association, Taylor thought the fêting of Mr. Ivy on his birthday was timely and the right thing to do for the man he nicknamed “The Godfather” of the funeral industry. 

When Taylor broached the idea of a surprise birthday celebration and a drive-by parade to his “boss” at M.J. Edwards Funeral Home – where Mr. Ivy works on the weekends when needed – he was given the green light to proceed. 

“When I was talking to my boss, he told me, ‘for Mr. Ivy, you won’t get no rejection.’ And everyone that I called to be a part of this, they said ‘[for] Mr. Ivy, we’ll be there,’” said Taylor, whom Mr. Ivy mentored at the onset of his career. 

City Councilman Edmund H. Ford Sr. of E.H. Ford Mortuary Services in Memphis happily answered Taylor’s call. Why? “Mr. Ivy is one of the greatest people in Memphis,” he said. “He’s helped everybody in Memphis.”

Including Ford’s father, the late Newton J. Ford, founder of N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, Inc. “I go way back with Mr. Ivy to the days of my father,” Ford said. “He’s the father of all these funeral homes.”

Mr. Ivy was there when Monroe James Edwards founded M.J. Edwards Funeral Home, Taylor said, and drove the lead hearse in a long procession of white funeral cars after Mr. Edwards was eulogized last year in March.

Sarah Carpenter, a friend and neighbor, spoke fondly of Mr. Ivy. A community activist, she said the funeral director has been nothing but a man of integrity since meeting him 26 years ago. 

He also stepped in when Carpenter needed him the most. “When my mother died last year, Mr. Ivy drove the funeral car all the way to Somerville, Tenn.,” she said. “And he was 89 then.” 

Mr. Ivy started his career in the funeral service industry in 1966 at J.O. Patterson Mortuary. He was licensed in 1973 as a funeral director and managed the mortuary from 1985-2008.

In addition to directing Monroe J. Edwards’s funeral service, Mr. Ivy handled the services of other notables as well, including Bishop J.O. Patterson Sr. in 1989, the first presiding prelate of the Church of God in Christ, Inc.; Bishop J.O. Patterson Jr. in 2011, pastor of Pentecostal Temple Church of God in Christ and former chairman of the COGIC General Board; and Bishop Gilbert E. Patterson in 2007, also the presiding prelate of the Church of God in Christ, Inc.

Wendell Naylor, marketing manager for M.J. Edwards Funeral Home, said Mr. Ivy taught him a lot about the funeral business. And you don’t have to be a notable, he pointed out, for Mr. Ivy to provide quality service.

Naylor, president of Tennessee State Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, reflected on this advice from Mr. Ivy: “When driving a funeral car, he taught me to drive 5 miles below the speed limit – and don’t rush the family.” 

Mr. Ivy is the Association’s sergeant at arms emeritus, Naylor said, a position he’s held since 1979. He also attends meetings regularly, including meetings called by the Bluff City Funeral Directors & Morticians Association.

“He’s just a wonderful man,” Naylor said.

Mr. Ivy has been married to Margaret Ivy for 60 years. They have a son, Mario Ivy Sr.; a grandson, Mario Ivy Jr.; and one great grandson. He is a dedicated member of Smother’s Chapter CME Church in the North Memphis community.

And he’s just as dedicated to the funeral service industry – even at 90.

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