Wichita black community steps up to help displaced mortician

The Kansas Department of Revenue raided Bethea Funerals and Cremations, 615 W. Maple, on Tuesday, seizing the company’s assets. (May 23, 2017)
The Kansas Department of Revenue raided Bethea Funerals and Cremations, 615 W. Maple, on Tuesday, seizing the company’s assets. (May 23, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita’s African-American community is rallying to help a black funeral director recover his mortuary, which was seized by the state for back taxes.

By Thursday afternoon, supporters of Robert Bethea had raised more than $2,600 through a GoFundMe page set up to help him pay the approximately $63,000 tax debt on his business, Bethea Funerals and Cremations.

Donations also were being accepted in person at the Chisholm Trail Church of Christ in northeast Wichita. And local churches and a well-known drill and drum corps were planning benefit shows, said Aaron Profit, a barber with Franklin’s Barber and Beauty Shop.

Profit organized the GoFundMe campaign along with the Rev. Ruben Eckels of New Day Christian Church.

“Right now this is the community coming together to say (to Bethea) we love you, we need you and we want you back,” Profit said.

Bethea is a popular figure in the African-American community because of his willingness to hire and train community residents and to work with lower-income clients who have trouble affording funerals. For many black Wichitans, “it’s just like seeing family when you go in there,” Profit said.

The Kansas Department of Revenue seized the funeral home’s assets on Tuesday, shutting down the business until Bethea can arrange to pay the back taxes.

Officials said they moved to seize the business “only after months of no contact from the business owner.”

Bethea said the problem was caused by bookkeeping errors and that he hired a consultant to represent him in negotiating a payment agreement. He said he’s not sure why talks between KDOR and the consultant apparently broke down.

A KDOR spokeswoman said the agency planned the seizure to have as little impact as possible on grieving families and arranged for a nearby mortuary to take custody of the five bodies that were in the Bethea mortuary.

“We are deeply sympathetic to the bereaved families who came to this business for a service and have been affected through no fault of their own,” said a statement by KDOR spokeswoman Rachel Whitten.

“There is obviously no good time for this kind of situation, however, the agents specifically picked a day when there would be no funeral services occurring to avoid any direct disruption. KDOR also brought in the Kansas Board of Mortuary Arts to assist with details such as handling remains and cremains.”

Profit said the idea for a GoFundMe account arose after people started asking what they could do to help Bethea.

“As pastor of New Day Christian Church I was called on many times to help families that could not afford the funeral services,” Eckels wrote in a letter supporting the GoFundMe campaign. “Bro. Bethea has not only provided the comfort for many families but he has many times had to come out of his own pocket and pay for those services.”

Bethea supporters announced late Thursday that they plan to hold a benefit concert at 6 p.m. June 3 at New Life Church, 1156 N. Oliver.

Profit said the Electifying Wichita Dynamic Steppers, an African-American drill team and drum corps, are also planning a benefit performance for Bethea, although he did not yet have the details on when and where.

KDOR officials said Bethea will be allowed to reopen the funeral home if he pays the debt or reaches agreement on a payment plan with the state.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas