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Saturday, February 21, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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5 Generations Of Tradition Laid To Rest -- Butterworth Funeral Home Sold To New Orleans-Based Chain

Seattle Times Business Reporter

In 1892 Edgar Ray Butterworth, a Massachusetts attorney who gave up law to make caskets and direct funerals in Washington state, took ownership of Cross and Co. Undertakers in downtown Seattle.

He renamed the firm E.R. Butterworth & Sons, starting what has become one of the city's oldest continuously family-run businesses.

His great-great grandson, Bert Butterworth Jr., now runs the company, which merged with the Manning and Ashmore funeral homes in 1978.

Now it looks like he may be the last Butterworth ever associated with the family mortuary business founded 112 years ago in Centralia, where E.R. Butterworth got his start before coming to Seattle.

Butterworth-Manning-Ashmore Funeral Directors has been sold to the national funeral chain Stewart Enterprises of New Orleans.

Butterworth is staying as vice president in charge of daily operations at the firm's headquarters at 300 E. Pine St., but the line of family ownership has been broken after five generations.

"We don't have children to extend that into the sixth generation," said Butterworth, who has no children. "It was a big emotional deal for us."

Butterworth said the family's decision to sell the firm was also based on economics.

The larger Stewart Enterprises, which owns 231 funeral homes and 119 cemeteries nationwide, can help absorb some internal expenses, such as the cost of merchandise and vehicles.

National chains often change or drive up prices for funeral services after taking over family firms, but Butterworth said Stewart has given him control over business dealings, including pricing.

"Our goal is not to come in and replace the management or replace the family itself," Stewart's Western Regional President, Skip Knopke, said.

Butterworth joins a long list of family-run mortuaries in Washington state that have been sold to chains in the last 10 years.

Half of the more than 200 funeral homes in this state are owned by businesses that own two or more establishments.

Green Funeral Homes on the Eastside, Bleitz in Seattle and Purdy & Walters in Snohomish County, for example, are owned by large national chains. Lola Franklin, executive director of the state Funeral Directors Association based in Bellevue, believes more consolidations are likely.

More than being a viable business venture for many established Seattle-area families, funeral homes such as the Butterworths' have become enduring parts of the city's landscape.

Horse-drawn funeral carriages used to line the street in front of the original Butterworth Building at 1921 First Ave., which was one of the first modern mortuaries on the West Coast when completed in 1903, said Harry Field, who was hired to write about the Butterworth family business.

Tyrone Beason's phone message number is 206-464-2251. His e-mail address is: tbea-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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