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Youngest son reopens funeral home parents started

BEN HILLYER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — James and Sharon West stand on the front steps of West Gate Funeral Home on Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Natchez. The building was where James’ father George F. West started his funeral business. At top left is a photo from the early 1970s of the funeral home. The Wests have dedicated the funeral home chapel to James’ father.
BEN HILLYER/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — James and Sharon West stand on the front steps of West Gate Funeral Home on Martin Luther King Jr. Street in Natchez. The building was where James’ father George F. West started his funeral business. 

When James West entered the funeral business in a way he also entered the resurrection business.

The youngest son of George F. West Sr. and Artimese West, James and his wife Sharon recently opened West Gate Funeral Home in the building that was for decades West Funeral Home — the business his parents started.

West Funeral Home — which was operated at the time by another West son, the late Theodore “Bubber” West — closed in 2008 in foreclosure, and in 2011 James and Sharon bought the property from the mortgage company, motivated in part, he said, to be able to open the family funeral home if something ever happened to his mother.

The couple slowly worked to renovate the building, and when Artimese died July 4, they were ready.

One of the newest additions to the funeral home is a family room that provides a brightly lit and  more intimate space.
One of the newest additions to the funeral home is a family room that provides a brightly lit and more intimate space.

“By no means is it easy for your first service to be your mother, but being the youngest son, what greater final gift can you give somebody?” he said. “She gave me a great grand opening.”

But when the Wests bought the funeral home, they didn’t mean to open it only for family, and the renovation work they did on the inside was meant to preserve the dignity of the family business while lightening the atmosphere.

“This is a very solid building, and I wanted to preserve the traditional aspect of it, but I also wanted to make it a little more modern,” Sharon said.

James said he was hesitant at first, but several coats of paint and room appropriations later, he knows it was the right choice.

“We tried to take out the curtains and the old dreaded funeral home look to give you a more colorful building,” he said. “Our philosophy is that nobody really wants to be in a funeral home, but since you are here, what can we do to make it a memorable experience for you?”

The Wests have dedicated the funeral home chapel to James’ father.
The Wests have dedicated the funeral home chapel to James’ father.

One way they did that was to remove a partition in the funeral home’s showroom, where grieving families will choose the casket or urn in which their loved ones will be buried.

“In a funeral home, everyone is fearful of what is behind a door or a wall, so we opened it up so you could see what is there,” he said.

The couple also took a side room and decorated it like a traditional parlor, calling it a “family room.” The goal of the room is to be an intimate, calming space, Sharon said.

“Sometimes when you are at a viewing and talking to people, or even before a funeral when all of the people are getting there, you just want to move away for some privacy for a few minutes,” she said.

But while the Wests are willing to make some changes to the business, James said he also wants to honor the past. One of the walls features photos of those family members who were involved with West Funeral Home; likewise, the chapel will be dedicated in honor of his father and the family room will be named in honor of his sister, Diane West Braddy.

James said his training in the funeral business came at the hands of his father, lessons he still carries today.

“My father trained all of us, the seven of us West children, to work in the business — how to handle ourselves, how to handle families, how to treat people — how to be servants of the community,” he said.

West Gate Funeral Home offers traditional funerals and what James called “traditional plus” — those with DVD tributes and even possible webcasting.

“If somebody wants just a basic, traditional funeral, that is absolutely not a problem, but we like to lean more toward celebrating a person’s life,” he said. “The way we think about the funeral business is that a person lived their life, and we want to show honor to their life.”

West Gate also offers cremation services.

James said when he considers everything, he is fortunate to be able to open West Gate.

“It is very humbling; you see how God works because he takes from the ashes,” James said. “West Funeral Home was a business that looked like it was completely over, but I had a friend who told me, ‘What your mother and father built is not in brick or in mortar, it is in your heart and what is in your heart you can carry with you wherever you go — we were fortunate to carry it back onto the line.”

James said he’s also gotten a lot of support from the community, and that means a lot as the business opens.

“Our family has been a part of the moral fabric of this community for many years, and has served here and politically,” he said. “We are just going to try the best that we can do and work to create a business you will be proud of.”

West Gate Funeral Home is located at 408 Martin Luther King Jr. St.