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Part I of a Two-Part Series
Sitting in her office on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Annette March-Grier reflected on the life and legacy of her mother, the late Julia Roberta March, who became a licensed funeral director in 1964 to support her husband William Carrington March’s vision to start a funeral home business that served the Black community.
“In any death or grief experience, you reflect on the life of the individual and what they contributed to you,” said March-Grier. “My parents opened a small funeral parlor, which they operated from the main floor of our home located at the corner of E. North Avenue and Cecil Avenue. As a child, I remember being on the second floor of our house looking down from the banister and watching my mom hold the hands of families who had lost loved ones. They would lean on her shoulders and she would be with them as they mourned. She was a great listener and always sat with the families. Many of them looked for “Miss Roberta” to walk them down the aisle during funerals, and my mom did it with dignity and class.”
Mr. and Mrs. March opened March Funeral Home on January 2, 1957. The couple accommodated clients who had little money, and the business began to flourish, growing from a few customers to hitting a milestone in 1965 by conducting 200 funerals in a single year. In 1978, Wm. C. March Funeral Home opened at 1101 E. North Avenue serving over 2,000 a year, and the original location became the administrative offices.
“March Funeral Home decided there was a need for community outreach in bereavement care, and we started looking into how to make that possible,” said March-Grier. “There were little to no resources to refer people to who lost loved ones, and the programs that existed were not culturally sensitive to the tragic and sudden deaths happening in our community.”
In 1982, under the leadership of March-Grier and March Funeral Homes, A Time of Sharing, an adult bereavement support group, became one of the first community-based bereavement support programs. “A Time of Sharing was a resource that was really needed, and we served anybody in the community that needed support,” said March-Grier.
In 1984, March-Grier, a graduate of the University of Delaware, and registered nurse, resigned from her position at Johns Hopkins Hospital to join the family’s business full-time. After completing mortuary school and obtaining her mortician’s license, she became the company’s director of public relations and marketing.
“I wondered how I could spread myself thinner to support a bereavement program for children,” she recalled. “I was a young mom and wife. I figured I would get to it. Then in 2006, our mom and matriarch, Mrs. March passed away. Our building at the corner of North Avenue and Cecil Avenue had deteriorated, and we had to decide what we were going to do with the building. My sister and brothers and myself decided it would be an ideal space to renovate or reconstruct a beautiful center named after our mother, Roberta March.”
Thus, Roberta’s House was born. Established in 2007, the independent non-profit moved into its first professional office at 1900 N. Broadway with the support of an earmark from former U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski. Roberta’s House provides free bereavement support for the entire family system and programs/services dedicated to helping address and cope with loss. Led by March-Grier, who was recognized as a “CNN Hero” in 2014 for her work, the non-profit has become the leading pioneer in addressing grief as public health prevention against violent behavior.
“We have trained over 700 volunteers since our inception which is a beautiful way to expand the healing process in our community,” said March-Grier. “Those we train take information back to the communities. Many who came through Roberta’s House programs come back and volunteer, which is a continuation of their healing. It becomes the healing cycle.”
The family would “March” on into the next chapter of its storied history with the opening of a new state-of-the art bereavement center located on the same block as its first funeral home.
Next Week: Part II— The opening of the Roberta’s House Bereavement Center at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building.