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Longtime Detroit funeral director O'Neil D. Swanson dies

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

As the founder of Swanson Funeral Home, O'Neil D. Swanson was at the forefront of handling services for thousands of Metro Detroit families over the past six decades at several locations across Detroit. 

He was considered a legend and an icon among funeral directors across the country and his funerals for luminaries as Rosa Parks and Aretha Franklin were noted as grand affairs that sometimes featured a horse-drawn carriage. 

Swanson, 86, died Friday morning, the funeral home said. A cause of death was not immediately available.


"He was the face of home goings," said Mario Morrow Sr. of Mario Morrow & Associates public relations firm. Morrow said his father and uncle attended college with Swanson.

He was a "legend, a giant not only in (the) Detroit area but throughout the country," Morrow said. 

"Whether you were a millionaire or person who was struggling, O'Neil D. Swanson made sure that if your body was with his funeral you were going to get top of the line service no matter who you were or where you came from."

Morrow added that Swanson was noted for his professionalism and outgoing nature.

Swanson opened  Swanson Funeral Home in 1958 with a pledge to provide superior service to all who walked through his doors, according to the funeral home website. Over the next 61 years, Swanson Funeral Home would  become a fixture in the community.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Swanson moved to  Dayton, Ohio at an early age. He  graduated as a member of the National Honor Society from PaulLaurence Dunbar High School.

In June 1953, Swanson graduated from Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio, and from 1953 through 1955 he served in the U.S. military, receiving an honorable discharge with the rank of first lieutenant, according to the funeral home.

Swanson continued his education at the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, and graduated cum laude in 1956, the same year he enhanced his professional status in the mortuary industry by passing the National Conference of Funeral Services Examiners Board.

Economist Karl Gregory, distinguished professor emeritusof Oakland University's School of Business Administration, said Friday that Swanson was "iconic in our community."

"He was a business leader and he supported a lot of charitable organizations and businesses," said Gregory, a friend of Swanson. "He invested in black businesses."

Kenneth Kelly, chairman and CEO, of First Independence Bank, said Swanson was one of the institution's founding organizers and the bank mourns his loss.

“We are deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Dr. Swanson," he said Friday in a statement. "His graciousness is unprecedented in caring for families in need of comfort, which I know will be returned to the Swanson family.

"His leadership as a founding director of First Independence Bank 50 years ago is a legacy of service to others that our entire team tries to embody on a daily basis," Kelly said. "On a personal level, I am so grateful to him for being accessible to young men in demonstrating manly deeds, scholarship and love for all mankind.” 

Radio talk host Mildred Gaddis, who honored Swanson two weeks ago with the Inaugural Detroit 20/20 Legacy Award, focused on his affinity for sharing and teaching.

"He never lost the common touch," she said. "He was quite successful but he never missed an opportunity to share and to teach when the opportunity presented it."

Gaddis added that Swanson gave back to his community often and generously.

"There are a lot of kids who owe their college education to O'Neil D. Swanson," said Gaddis. "He believed his success was not just for his family but to share."