“The impediment of action becomes action. What stands in the way becomes the way,” says Joseph H. Brown, III, quoting Marcus Aurelius. Joe laughs ironically because he doesn’t allow anything to stand in the way of his vision.
When Joe couldn’t secure financing during the recession to build a crematory, he leaned a ladder against the side of his funeral home and climbed onto the roof. Setting the choke on his chainsaw, he pulled the cord and plunged the blade into the roofing membrane to cut out the stack hole. Then, Joe rallied members of his community to help him finish installing a 15 ton newly purchased—and self-financed—B&L Phoenix II.
And that was just the beginning.
The Brown family has been caring for Baltimore’s dead for generations. “I’m a fourth-generation undertaker,” Joe offers. He’s quick to add, “but first-generation cremationist.” The founder of the undertaking dynasty, Isaiah L. Brown, Sr., was born in 1860. A carpenter and livery owner by trade, he began burying the people in his South Baltimore neighborhood in 1896, running his undertaking establishment, Isaiah L. Brown and Sons Funeral Home, out of his modest Montgomery Street rowhome. His sons, Isaiah, Jr. and Roland took over the business, and ran it until their nephew, Joseph H. Brown, Jr. came onboard after returning from the Korean War. Joe, Jr. attended the American Academy in New York. After taking over the business from Roland, he opened the newly minted Joseph H. Brown, Jr. Funeral Home in 1973 in the 1900 Block of West Baltimore Street in West Baltimore. Joe, III remembers, “My dad was very proud of our new location. I was 13 at the time, and I was proud for him.”
The new location was four stories above ground with the prep room in the basement. Joe, Jr. purchased the vacant lot next door and built an adjoining chapel. “But it was still a rowhome,” Joe recalls. “There was no parking. We had to double park cars in the street for a funeral, and to get a body into the chapel we had to put it in the hearse and drive it around the block.” The location served Joe, Jr. well, but seeing the need for additional growth he bought their current facility in 1996 at 2140 N. Fulton Street near Druid Hill Park. The move proved prescient and the funeral home now boasts the largest facility in Baltimore, sitting on 2.6 acres with 38,000 square feet spread over three buildings and ample parking—a rarity for a city funeral home. The main building features two chapels, the larger seating over 400 people and the smaller 100.
The path to funeral service wasn’t a linear one for Joe. He enlisted in the Navy and served for 11 years as a WestPac sailor in the South Pacific.
“I loved it. The navy enabled me to see the world,” he says, pride evident in his voice. “I thought I’d do that forever.” But caring for the dead is in his bones, and Joe found himself drawn to return to the family business. Stateside, stationed at the Washington Navy Yard, Joe attended UDC, earning a degree in mortuary science. After an honorable discharge as an HM1 (petty officer first class designation for a corpsman), Joe returned to his father’s side to serve the people of West Baltimore.
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