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Lisa Loving of The Skanner
Published: 29 October 2008

In Mexico, Nov. 1 – Dia de los Muertos – is a daylong celebration and remembrance of loved ones who have passed away. Special displays are built with candles and sweets and photos of the departed ones.


 Jerome Cox-Tanner

 Shawna Tanner

In North and Northeast Portland several special events are planned around the Day of the Dead, but there's a family that helps the entire community cope – and also commemorate – every man, woman and child who departs this world, every day of the year.

Over the past two years, Jerome Cox Tanner and his wife Schawna Tanner of Cox and Cox Funeral Chapel, have not only arranged hundreds of funerals, but they've started up new projects to help families remember and honor their dead not unlike the traditions of Mexico.

"There are so many facets to this business: grief counseling, arrangements," Jerome Tanner says. "How do you go about making arrangements? Preparing for a funeral, helping the family, helping write the obituary. Most of the time we get so many people coming in here who don't have the faintest idea of what to do."

The Tanners live on the second floor of the family's stately 95-year-old Chapel. On the ground floor, they operate a showroom, a hall for services, personal offices, and a preparation room for remains.

The phone rings off the hook all day, and sometimes all night. Toting multiple cellphones, both of the Tanners are constantly fielding calls about death certificates, funerals, burial arrangements, and obituaries.

Through it all, neither Jerome nor Schawna seem overwhelmed, sad or annoyed.

"In anything you do you need to place yourself in that person's shoes," Schawna says of their steady flow of clients in crisis. "Not only are we working on a 24 hour basis, but we do double duty; we run the business but we're also living our own lives, you're doing the cooking, you're dealing with the kids."

The family has been in business ever since the 1940s. Jerome's grandfather and grandmother, Arthur Cox Sr. and Etolia Cox, were the original owners of the funeral chapel.

Before that, the couple started up Oregon's first African American newspaper, The Northwest Clarion, then a restaurant called the Subway Grill. Later, Cox, Sr. became the first Black tavern owner to obtain his own liquor license from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission without a White man serving as the "front" for the license.

Cox famously teamed up with attorney John Toran to sue the state and win the license, before operating the Eldorado Club through the 1980s.

Cox, Sr. attended a Chicago mortuary school in the early 1950s, then apprenticed with Zeller's Funeral Chapel on North Williams Avenue. He ultimately purchased the business from Zeller and moved headquarters to the current property on North Rodney St.

The building was originally an apartment building, but Cox Sr. renovated it himself to house his family and his business. Throughout all the years, he did many jobs at the same time.

"He was an expert in restorative art," Jerome says. "He would be called in by other mortuaries at midnight and if that individual was messed up – let's say half of his face needed to be repaired – my grandfather fixed him up and was paid under the table.

"He was the only one in Oregon paid to do this work," he said.

Tanner's uncle, Arthur A Cox Jr., worked for a time on the waterfront before deciding to attend mortuary school as well. He joined the family business by the late 1950s.

"There were morticians and beauticians in the family," Tanner said. "My grandmother was a beautician, my mother was a beautician, my aunt was a beautician, so we had funeral directors and beauticians."

After the men in the family prepared the remains for burial, the women in the family applied their cosmetics and did their hair.

Today, Schawna takes care of everything from writing the obituaries and death notices to arranging commemorations and serving grieving families at graveside.

She says that the family has many times quietly provided free services in cases where the need is dire and also in particularly heartbreaking circumstances, such as in murder cases.

"Once the service is over with everybody goes back to their own life, but this individual or family is still there thinking of their loved one," she says. "There might be a song, there might be a day that's just between them two."

That's why two years ago the Tanners started a new tradition they call Remembrance Day, where they invited anyone who wanted to come to a big hall for food and door prizes and music – all celebrating departed loved ones, free of charge.

"We invited anybody, anybody who wanted to come, it didn't matter if they went to another funeral home or not," she said. "A few people came that didn't even come to our funeral home, but they had their programs, their obituary of their loved one, and that was so touching to me it made me think we'd done something really right."

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