After decades of working at Long Beach Colonial Mortuary, Latasha Company left and opened Belmont Heights Funeral Center on 7th Street. She also brought
After decades of working at Long Beach Colonial Mortuary, Latasha Company left and opened Belmont Heights Funeral Center on 7th Street. She also brought Jonathan Polk with her to help her run the business. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)

For nearly four decades, Latasha Company has cared for the needs of grieving families. From memorial services to burial needs, she has walked them through every emotional detail of the death of a loved one.

In November, Company will become the first African-American female to open her own funeral service business in Long Beach, the Belmont Heights Funeral Center.

After attending mortician school in the mid-'70s, Company moved to Long Beach where she helped found Long Beach Colonial Mortuary.

"I worked day and night. I did funerals, removals, embalming, dressing of human remains - whatever needed to be done," she said. "But most of all, I served the community. I get a joy out of what I do because I love people."

Over the years, Company has made and continues to make her mark in the mortician world. She was the first African-American woman president of the Los Angeles County Funeral Directors Association and will be the first director to have her own crematorium, she said.

"This is a calling that God gave me," she said. "I have never had to look for a job since 1976."

The first goal of the center was to be unique - to be "a place where people come and don't feel like it's a mortuary," said Jonathon Polk, the center's vice president and general manager.

"Here everything is open, nothing is hidden. It feels just like you are walking into your home, and that's the feeling we want to have," he said. "That's why we don't call it a mortuary and we don't say funeral home. It's a funeral center."

Absent from the "normal" ambiance: sad organ music and bland decor, Polk said.

"The colors are mellow - it's a more homey, intimate feeling," he said. "It helps the customer to be more focused on making funeral arrangements verses on the environment."

The center will also offer an array of services - from the traditional to the modern.

"As time changes and we move into new generations, the old traditional (funeral) service is fading away," Polk said. "People are looking more for celebrating life, not necessarily grieving. They want to remember the person and to share those memories."

Despite the sadness that comes with funeral planning, people should find solace and comfort while making arrangements, Polk said.

"Customers don't want to be reminded that their loved one is deceased, even though they know they are, they don't want to go into a place where they see a room full of caskets and the place smells of formaldehyde," he said. "They don't want to see people with pale, dull looks on their faces. They want to go to a place that's nice, soothing and calm. They want to see something new."

The center will house its own crematorium by the first of the year, Polk said.

"Burial was the traditional mode of disposition, but as we moved into the 21st century, more families are starting to cremate," he said. "It's projected in the next 20 years that cremation will increase more over burial."

Difficult economic times have also played a role in the way the center will do business, Polk said.

"With cemetery prices being so high, a lot of families can't afford it or they can and can't see the rationale of paying $5,000 and $6,000," he said. "Cremation is the economical alternative for families. Here we offer that service, a service that allows people to remember their loved ones, having meaningful memories, a service they can remember, but at the same time they are not putting a hole in their pocket."

For Company, starting her own business gives her a freedom she has never had, she said.

"I don't have to go in a book and get prices and stick with those prices. I work for myself," she said.

"If I want to give away a funeral, I can. There's nobody to tell me what I can't do now and that's a good feeling."

The funeral center will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"People don't want to get an answering service when a loved one has died," Polk said. "They want to hear a voice they can trust and one that's calm and that's what they will get - not an answering service."

Even after 40 years, Company plans to continue do what she loves.

"Some people ask, `when are you going to retire,' I say, `retire from what?' This is my gift that God has given me and I'm excited about it," Company said. "I'm not tired yet. This is just a continuation."

The center is located at 3501 E. 7th St., Long Beach. For more information call 562-439-3100.

"This is a community business. We want people to see this as a staple in the community all through the Greater Long Beach area," Polk said. "We want people to know that when someone passes away, this is who we call."

Grand opening will be from 1-5 p.m. Nov. 4.

pam.hale@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2141

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