Carolyn & Kara Whigham
Whigham Funeral Home • Newark, New Jersey
Carolyn Whigham is proud to have her daughter Kara, working alongside her.
“People say if you see me, you see her and if you see Kara, you see her mother,” Carolyn, 70, owner/director of the Whigham Funeral Home in Newark, New Jersey, said.
Kara, 39, the vice president of the funeral home, joined her mother in the business in 2003. Charles L. Whigham, Carolyn’s father and Kara’s grandfather, founded the Whigham Funeral Home in 1946.
At first, Carolyn wasn’t involved in the business. She did help out while growing up in Newark and living above the funeral home. But she moved to Los Angeles after marrying in 1974 and worked in real estate. In 1984, after a divorce, she returned to her hometown. Two years later, she graduated from the American Academy McAllister Institute of Funeral Service in New York City and joined her father at the funeral home.
“I really never wanted to be in California,” Carolyn said. “I always had a love for the funeral career. My father always had a vision that his children would follow him in his career. He was elated when I came back.”
And dad made sure his daughter knew everything about the business.
“My father was very strategic. He wanted my brother and I and my children to know all the aspects and operations of the business: answering the phones, doing insurance claims, the books and record keeping,” Carolyn said. “It’s not just conducting a funeral service or embalming the body. He was a taskmaster and said you need to know it all, including how to prepare things.
Kara was born in California and was five when her mother returned to New Jersey.
“I remember on the weekends we didn’t have the regular life of an average kid,” she said. “I would get up and go to work: detailing the equipment, setting up the flowers, and the chapel. It was an interesting part of my life.”
Growing up, Kara still wasn’t sure she wanted to continue in the business. She played basketball in high school and received a full athletic scholarship to Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.
“To be honest, as a kid, I always said I would never get into this industry, I saw the toll it took on my mom,” she said. “My brother and I were very active in sports and there were many games of ours she could not make.”
Change of Direction
“I had a flip, though, and thought it would be a shame to not explore this,” Kara said. “It was like second nature, when I came home on breaks, even in high school, it was coming home to the funeral home. Overall it wasn’t a hard decision, it was the family business.”
After graduating from Canisius, she attended the American Academy McAllister Institute where she
received her degree in mortuary
science in August 2002. Ironically, the day she passed the state and national board exams was Feb. 27, 2003, what would have been the 95th birthday of her grandfather, Charles L. Whigham.
“Deep inside, I knew it was God’s way of showing that my grandfather was pleased with my accomplishments,” Kara said.
Her brother, Steveland, worked at the funeral home until 2008. He is now an area manager for Equinox, an American luxury fitness company.
“I never discouraged my children from doing this. It’s like someone whose father is a dentist or a lawyer. We lived upstairs from the funeral home, and there was no way for them not to see our involvement,” Carolyn said. “When Kara told me she was going to attend mortuary school, I said ‘great!’’’
Carolyn also grew up living above the funeral home.
“My parents were always at work. If the TV was on and the phone rang, we turned the TV down and answered the phone. We always had to act like we were really wide awake,” she said. “We were always in a business environment and now, raising grandchildren, we turn the TV down. We are in a business environment, it’s the same thing.”
Kara credits her mother with instilling important values.
“I learned pretty much everything that I know about this career from her,” she said. “We give every family the same treatment, the same dignity. She taught me that you have one shot at it and you give your clients the best you have. We’re hoping generation after generation will take their loved ones to Whigham and those families know we’ll give them everything that they need.
“The greatest gift my mother and my grandfather taught me was when we walk through our doors that we’re there to serve the community. Every family that comes through our doors gets that same respect.”
Whitney Houston’s Funeral
In 2012, the spotlight of the nation and much of the world was on the Whigham Funeral Home when it handled Whitney Houston’s funeral. Houston was born in Newark and grew up in nearby East Orange.“There was so much going on when Whitney Houston passed away. The majority of people in the community who knew Whigham knew Whitney would be coming here,” Kara said. “We couldn’t comment at first, but when her body was on a plane from California, people started lining up outside our building, trying to get a view. It felt good that the people in New Jersey knew, without a shadow of a doubt, her family would bring her here.”
The day after Houston died, Carolyn flew to Los Angeles to begin preparations for the funeral services.
“I was in California with Whitney for two days before I brought her back to New Jersey,” she said. “Everything that you saw in Newark – the tents, the canopies – Kara and Terry (Carolyn’s lifetime partner and the manager of the funeral home) handled that. I give kudos to them because they had to think out of the box and orchestrate what needed to be done.”
For Kara, it was a service she was trained to handle.
“Dealing with a celebrity’s family wasn’t anything new,” she said. “But dealing with Whitney was a magnifying glass because of her fame and the untimeliness of her passing. Plus, we were dealing with two states. My mother was in California and we couldn’t always communicate with her. But we knew this place was in a position to do what we needed to do.
“It was an interesting experience, nothing that we would change,” she added. “It was a larger scale with all the media and the attention, but because we do it every day, it wasn’t so much a change for us. My grandfather taught us no matter who it is, you do your best, you speak well and you represent well.”
Three years later, in 2015, the Whighams handled the viewing and burial arrangements for Houston’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown.
The Whighams have performed other celebrity burials, including Sarah Vaughan; jazz trumpeter Woody Shaw; U.S. Congressman Donald Payne; Shaquille O’Neal’s grandmother, Odessa Chambliss; and John Houston, Whitney’s father.