District 4 Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen left no doubt that she opposes the crematorium being proposed for a site in Orange Mound. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

When Anastasia Davis sent out hundreds of letters to Orange Mound residents to introduce herself and a proposed crematorium in their community, she had no idea of the firestorm awaiting her.

“I was truly hurt,” she said. “All of these elected officials and community leaders spoke out against it. They didn’t give me a chance to really explain the project. What they did was incite everyone to fear. People were yelling out, ‘Not in my neighborhood. Go take that someplace else.’ It was called an ‘abomination.’ I was really disappointed because there were things presented as fact, and they were just not true.”

The meeting was held on Monday evening at Mt. Gilliam Baptist Church. A sizeable gathering of concerned Orange Mound residents filled the sanctuary, located at 1029 Raymond Street. 

“There was a large turnout, but I wasn’t given a chance really to just tell who I am and what my vision is for this project before people began speaking out against it. I guess my most vocal opponent was City Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen, whose district is Orange Mound.”

District 4 Councilwoman Swearengen defended her remarks, stating that her job is to present facts to her constituents because “she is their voice.”

“My responsibility, first and foremost, is to share the facts. I wanted people to know what the possible impact of a crematorium would be. In a 2010 study, it was stated that toxins are released when a human body is cremated. The most dangerous one of those is mercury. In that heated, vaporized form, mercury is breathed in and absorbed by the bloodstream. Even in small amounts, it is harmful to the brain. The EPA warns that there are health risks. Cremation produces pollutants and causes health problems.”

Davis, who has been employed with Superior Funeral Home for five years, said the plot of land at 2489 Park Avenue, was given to her so she could have her own business. Davis Cremation Services would accommodate, not only Superior, but other small funeral homes in the area.

“My mother still lives in the Orange Mound community,” said Davis. “I wouldn’t endanger her life, but people were saying things like there would be the smell of burning bodies the there would be a barbeque of human flesh, and that is just not true. I am taking a blighted area and turning it into a thriving business. The construction of the building would resemble an auto repair shop. Residents would forget that it is even there.

Anastasia Davis

“The market is evolving. More than 53 percent of people planning their final services are choosing cremation. In Tennessee, that number is 27 percent. I also write insurance policies. Owners of small funeral homes can get cheap cremation services. I would be helping them stay in business. Those who addressed the people—elected officials—instilled fear, and I felt very disappointed because not once did they call me or try to get to know me and what I was trying to do. I would never put the residents of Orange Mound in danger.”

One attendee of the meeting was LaTonia Blankenship, a long-time Orange Mound resident and Family Engagement Specialist at Melrose High School.

“I am concerned because we have so many schools here in Orange Mound, and children are a vulnerable population,” she said. “I do believe that harmful toxins could be released into the air, making our children seriously ill. We also have a large senior population. They are vulnerable as well. I did listen to the young lady proposing the crematorium, but I just can’t get behind something like that.”

Councilwoman Swearengen was adamant that this type of business is not what Orange Mound needs. 

“I am the voice of the people, and I say that the facts prove that the environment would not be a healthy one, especially for children. We have seniors who like to come out and sit on their porches. If you just do a little research, you’ll find that crematoriums are generally not built in residential areas where there are homes and schools.

“Remember some years ago, Michelle Obama declared this area a place for historic preservation. Park Avenue is an important street in Orange Mound and in the city of Memphis. We must monitor what is placed in our community. If there are safety risks, we must stand against it.”

Josh Whitehead, administrator over the office of Planning and Development for Memphis and Shelby County said: “This matter will be heard by the Memphis and Shelby County Board of Adjustment on Wednesday, December 18, at 2 p.m.  My department will prepare a staff report for the Board that will be complete by Friday, December 13, and posted on our website.  It will contain our comments on this case.”

The community is invited to a meeting of the Planning and Development Board in City Council Chambers on Thursday, December 12, at 9 a.m.