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Heads You Win: Remembering Harlem Funeral Director George Bernard Benta

New York Times

"God gave us two ends: one to sit on; one to think with. Success depends on which one you use."

George Bernard Benta (New York Times)You probably aren't familiar with funeral director George Bernard Benta, but we're guessing you've heard of a few of his famous clients. During his six-plus decades directing services at the Harlem funeral home his father founded, Benta handled the final arrangements for luminaries Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Paul Robeson, and Alvin Ailey, among others. He made all families – famous or not – feel welcome, and became famous himself for his philosophies on life. Legacy contributor Susan Soper shares his story.

A friend in New York forwarded me an obituary for a funeral director who specialized in personal, colorful, and respectful services at the Harlem funeral home his father opened in 1928.

George Bernard Benta buried celebrities and unknowns with equanimity, professionalism, and in keeping with the personal philosophies he was famous for among family members and neighbors. He was a dapper dresser – maybe even “flashy” as the obituary says, but never tastelessly so. As Kia Gregory writes, he was a “stickler” for good conduct and held himself and others to the highest standards. The obituary reveals an elegant and dignified send-off worthy of the man.

And who would not want to read more about a man whose funeral program included this personal motto on the back:

God gave us two ends: one to sit on; one to think with. Success depends on which one you use. Heads you win, tails you lose.
 

 

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit™, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has been a reporter with Newsday, writer for CNN, and Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."