Just prior to the dawn of the 20th century and nearly two decades following Reconstruction, Jesse B. Hart founded his modest mortuary in a small, single-room structure on Mulberry Street in Macon, Georgia. Originally operated as Keating’s Funeral Parlour, the local entrepreneur purchased an existing undertaking establishment from Dennis Keating in 1899. Hart proved innovative from the onset and soon added a chapel, anticipating that mortuaries were quickly evolving into full-service funeral facilities. Innately progressive, Hart provided Macon’s first horse-drawn ambulance and later the city’s first automobile ambulance.
J. Freeman Hart joined the firm in 1908, which necessitated a name change to Jesse B. Hart and Brother. Seemingly unshaped by norms of the era, Hart hired Annie Taylor in 1911 to serve as his first female embalmer. The brothers Hart both served terms as president of the Georgia State Funeral Association, and Jesse became a member of the Legislative Committee of the National Funeral Directors Association.
HART’S ON CHERRY STREET
Forgoing another Mulberry Street expansion, Freeman Hart decided to design and construct an expansive new edifice on Cherry Street, in the heart of downtown Macon. Boasting architecture steeped in Southern tradition, the two-story property is constructed of red brick and adorned with black shutters and bright white trim. Four substantial columns dominate the front facade, forming an elegant, stately curb appeal. Guests immediately notice the classic black and white tile floor upon entering. Opened in 1931, Hart’s Cherry Street location was one of the first purposefully built funeral homes and still serves as the company’s headquarters.
The same year, continuing to buck tradition and swift to embrace new trends within the profession, Hart installed a basement crematory. After Jesse Hart departed in favor of a career in banking, Freeman Hart continued operating the funeral home and was joined by his son, J. Freeman “Buster” Hart Jr.
“It was the only crematory south of Cincinnati, Ohio. Funeral homes would either drive or send decedents by train. Afterward, Hart’s would mail the cremated remains back to the other funeral home, described J. Milton Heard IV, the sole owner of Hart’s Mortuary and its subsidiaries.
Early cremations were a long, arduous and inefficient process.
“It took around 12 hours to complete a cremation, and one person had to operate the retort during the entire process, manually controlling the fire and oxygen levels,” Heard explained.
In 1961, a new crematory was installed, reducing the process to five or six hours.
“We still have the old retort in the basement,” he admitted, while the unit from the ‘60s was replaced completely with a Matthews PowerPak II in 1994 and upgraded again in 2020 with a Facultatieve unit.
Heard took over ownership from his father, J. Milton Heard III in 2019. Milton Heard III was employed at the funeral home during college and developed a passion for the profession. Spending his early career in real estate, Heard continued to nurture a friendship with the Hart family and was persistent about his desire to eventually acquire the firm. In 1982, the elder Heard purchased the longtime Macon mortuary from Buster Hart. He cherished his role of serving his community for 37 years until he retired due to health issues.
Despite his three children all initially becoming funeral directors, Heard never pressured them to join the family business.
“My dad never forced us to choose funeral service, but we were always exposed to it through him,” he recounted.
Heard’s sister, Kathryn Heard Rogers, now manages Mount Olive Memorial Gardens in Augusta, while his brother, Michael, works as a financial consultant with Merrill Lynch.
“I started working at the funeral home when I was 14 and could embalm by myself at 15. When I got my driver’s license, I stayed overnight, answered the phones and went on night removals,” Heard remembered, pointing out that he was eager to pay his dues and experience all facets of the business.
“I didn’t really like being considered ‘son of the boss’ to get preferential treatment. I wanted to learn and be exposed to everything, so, in addition to helping with funerals, removals and embalming, I also worked with the CFO after school each day.” he related.
Heard earned his bachelor’s in management from Georgia Tech before obtaining an MBA in finance from Georgia State University. In 1994, he graduated from mortuary school after spending four months at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida.
“The mortuary school’s educational director let me take three semesters worth of classes at one time, so it enabled me to get through the program quicker, which was my goal,” asserted Heard.
A keen visionary and progressive thinker in his own right, Heard continues to improve aesthetics and increase efficiency and is constantly creating and implementing fresh ideas and new techniques in an effort to better serve families.
Having undergone past expansions and renovations, Cherry Street continues to be identified as the firm’s de facto operations center. The chapel, crematory, coffee shop, reposing rooms and administrative offices comprise just part of the facility’s total working space of nearly 13,000 square feet. Located upstairs is the embalming room, accessed by an elevator, at the end of a breezeway connecting the main premises with an adjoining garage. Originally designed without central heating and air conditioning, the building had to be retrofitted.
“Embalming used to be done in this small room downstairs that had a bay window. We were embalming over 700 with one table. I added a twin bed used by myself and my dad as children, and we use it for final viewings before cremation,” Heard said.
The chapel features chairs instead of pews, enabling the space to be utilized for multiple purposes. An adjacent coffee shop is an inviting and contemporary element in a traditional setting. Requiring an extensive renovation, the chapel’s antique pipe organ serves solely as a backdrop these days.
Aside from the normal funeral home attributes, the most impressive facet of Hart’s Cherry Street is its new cremation center. Converting a space that was just outside the back door, Heard enclosed the area and installed a new, state-of-the-art cremation system. Sleek, sophisticated and technologically advanced, a stainless steel autoloader seamlessly transfers decedents from table to retort. Completed cremations are emptied at the rear of the machine and away from the family’s view, keeping the front pristine and sterile.
“Our cremation rate is about 70%. My goal was creating a facility that would be difficult to duplicate. Families are able to view and witness the cremation in a really nice space and somewhere other than a garage. I am also a photographer and had several of my photos enlarged as sound absorbing panels, and we place the casket or container right in front,” explained Heard, whose direct cremation price is around $4,000.
The marble floors, exposed brick and curved ramp with wrought iron railing make the cremation center astonishingly beautiful and memorable.
All the embalming is done at the Hart’s on Cherry Street, but the staff makes arrangements and conducts funerals at three other branches.
“I enjoy working and still meet with around 250 families per year,” Heard said.
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